How not to write a literature review: Part 2

2015.06.20.not-lit-reviewAs many PhD students will tell you, doing a literature review can be a daunting task. And for students in social sciences, that task begins when your studies begin… and it would seem that it never ends! Well, at least that’s my personal experience with the things. After all, I’m half-way through my PhD* and the thing still isn’t done. It just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

Of course, hindsight being what it is, I know where I went wrong. And if I had it all to do over again, I would be in a place of happiness right now. Or at least I wouldn’t be quite this frustrated with the process. (Well, that’s my working theory at least.)

Part of the problem I’ve run into is that I am studying outside of my comfort zone. I am doing a PhD in information science, but my background is communications and media and culture. And I thought (incorrectly!) that my background in social media would have set me up for this experience. But I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Only I didn’t realise how wrong I was until after I’d compiled a fairly lengthy (and decent, if I can say so) literature review. It was a comprehensive review of literature about social media and reputation. And it really covered a wide breadth of disciplines—all helping to substantiate my research.

And then someone mentioned a few researchers from within the field of information science that I’d not really looked at before. After all, the papers weren’t about social media and had (I thought!) a very tenuous link to my work.

But I was encouraged to keep reading. So I read. And I read. And I read. And all of the sudden, I found myself understanding the connections—and understanding so much more about the domain of information science.

Now, I find myself reading even more—and growing my review even further. But I’m also realising that I’ve made a massive mountain out of a mid-sized molehill.

So, knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? (Other than the “write early; write often” lesson I wrote about before.)

The truth is, I don’t know. I think that maybe I needed to ask different questions at the start of my literature searching. Or, importantly, I should have recognised earlier on that I was in a discipline that was unfamiliar to me so that I could have started to read some of the “introductory” texts earlier than I did.

Yes—that! I should have stopped to realise that I didn’t fully understand the field of information science so that I could have built a stronger foundation from the start. Instead, I’ve had to backfill large sections of my knowledge.

The good thing is that my literature review is starting to make a lot more sense now. And—hopefully!—this extra work now will save me some effort and frustration when it comes time to write up my thesis.

The other good thing is that I have learned some important lessons about literature reviews, my new field of study, and—importantly!—myself.

There is still much work to do—for my literature view, my PhD, and my own self-esteem—but I’m getting there. Slowly.

And maybe now that I am feeling a bit more confident, I’ll be able to write here on Just a PhD a bit more. (I’ve been ignoring this place because I haven’t felt worthy of writing about a PhD when I haven’t even felt worthy of doing one!)

So, that’s a bit more on how not to do a literature review. Hopefully, by the end of it, I will be able to give some great insight to how I will do my next one!

* Well, I’m half-way through my PhD studentship anyhow. At this rate, it’s going to take me a bit longer than the three years of funded studies. So that’s a stress I’ll have to worry about eventually.

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week, I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

Defining and organising the Internet

organising-the-internetIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, in part because I still haven’t figured out how best to use this space and in part because I have too many muddled thoughts in my brain to know what to share.

To address both of those issues, I’ve decided to use a tactic that works for my personal blogging habits: I’m going to attempt at using this space to work through some of the confusion I’m facing. The hope is that the act of writing my thoughts down will help me to clarify them, but that it will also give me the opportunity to seek feedback from others.

So, here goes!

Two of my goals for the next week are to 1) source some simple definitions of a few technical terms and 2) create an organisational chart of the Internet (highlighting my main areas of research).

Both of these things will be used in my thesis to guide the reader in their understanding of my approach to the topic of personal online reputation management.

First, the terms I want to define. Initially, I want to start with the broad terms found in the middle of the organisational chart. Those are:

But I may also need to add other definitions such as blog, forum, comments section, etc.

Or maybe those belong in a table somewhere?

Or maybe in a glossary?

How do I decide what terms to define within the main body of my work and which to simply relegate to a glossary?

Now, onto the organisational chart. (Full-size PDF here.)

(Don’t worry: the cat won’t be on the final version, despite theories that the Internet is actually made of cats*.)

I am starting with cats “The Internet” then attempting to identify the main areas under that umbrella. For now, those are the World Wide Web; interfaces for email and SMS; and peer-to-peer file-sharing, FTP sites, and VoIP services.

I am only planning to expand on the sections I’m investigating, so will only be expanding on the World Wide Web category from there.

Under the World Wide Web, I have listed social media (Web 2.0); databases and organisational and informational websites; and static websites (Web 1.0).

And from there, I’ve placed social networking sites under social media.

Here are some of my questions:

What am I missing from each level?

How much detail do I need to go into?

Do I list examples on the chart on in the descriptive text?
(Example: Blogs under social media; Facebook under SNSs)

Am I completely off-base in my thinking?

Any thoughts and opinions you have to share would be greatly appreciated. And hopefully, I’ll have my head fully wrapped around this all by next week, at which time I’ll share an update.

Thanks for helping!

(Oh, and I suppose I should make a joke about how organising the Internet feels a bit like herding cats, too.)

* There’s a video about it and all! Please note that there may be questionable language used around the 1-minute mark.

Finding a method to my madness

2014.02.27.research-word-cloud[To jump right in] Last week’s panel review meeting went rather well. I was (as predicted) worrying about (mostly) nothing and the review was a simple(ish) chat about my progress to date. Of course, there had been an expectation that I might have had a bit more work to show as it was a “6-month review” but when it was explained that I started late and was therefore only at my 4-month mark, it all started to make sense.

One of the biggest things I took away from the meeting was that I really need to start giving more thought to my research methodologies. I mean, it’s great that I know I want to research how people manage their reputation online, but how do I actually accomplish that? (Yes, these are things you need to think of as a researcher!)

(In fairness to myself, I have known all along that I would need to pin down my methodologies, I’ve just yet to actually put a stake in the ground.)

Do I use in-depth interviews to really investigate how individuals manage their online reputations?

Do I use a large-scale survey to determine the percentage of people who do x, y, or z in the management of their online reputations?

Do I hold focus groups with the hope of generating a bit of conversation around topic?

Do I use observational tools, looking at publicly available data and information to make conclusions of what people appear to be doing—or not doing—in an effort to manage their reputation?

Or do I use a combination of methods?

And what about the validation process? How will I go about validating my research, especially if I’m opting to use in-depth interviews and case studies?

As you can probably tell, I don’t actually have an answer to these questions. In fact, the more I try to find an answer, the more I start to ask more questions! (Ah, the questions-answers-questions loop. It can be frustrating at times.)

So in an effort to help me determine what methods to use in my research, I’m doing what any good researcher would do: I am researching!

I am currently re-reading research articles to determine the varying methods that have been successfully implemented in the past. From there, I hope to be able to identify a couple of methodologies that seem likely to fit with my project.

At the same time, I will be accessing other PhD theses to see what methods others have used—as well as what methods others have eschewed—and their reasoning behind those decisions.

Over the weekend, I will make a list of further research articles to read, in the hopes of expanding my knowledge of existing studies so that I can better determine what methods might work for me. And—with a bit of hard work and a touch of luck—by next Friday’s supervision meeting I will be ready to talk to my supervisors about 2-3 potential methods.

Importantly, all of this research into research methods will also help me with my next big milestone: The completion of my RD4 form, which is an expanded research proposal that will include my intended methodologies.

As always—I’m open to input from others so please feel free to point me towards some great resource you think I should be considering!

Finding some clarity: It’s about reputation (not privacy)

2014.01.25.finding-clarityI’ve spent the past few weeks reading about privacy, identity, and reputation so that I can try to resolve a few questions I have about where I want to take my PhD research. My area of interest is reputation, but with so many elements impacting reputation it can be hard to interpret the map with all of my thoughts and ideas.

I admit that it’s been extremely frustrating because I’ve found myself heading down so many paths that have been filled with more distraction than relevance and I was starting to wonder if I’d ever be able to find a path that could bring me a bit more focus. (I understand this is a common problem at the start of a PhD, so I haven’t felt like a failure because of it—but it hasn’t built up my confidence, either.)

Thankfully, this is where my supervisors come in! They’ve “been there; done that” so are able to help guide me in the right direction. (Yay!)

I developed a very rough draft of an essay on privacy, identity, and reputation—and the relationship between the three—and sent my supervisors a copy ahead of yesterday’s supervision meeting. I was very unhappy with the draft because it seemed so [enter several negative adjectives here], but in the end it was a very useful tool because one of my supervisors took the time to write a summary of key points on a white board for us to discuss—and that discussion led to a great amount of useful waypoints.

By the end of the meeting, I was filled with a renewed sense of excitement because I could see the path a little more clearly. There is still a bit of fog and I’m sure there will be a few rough patches to traverse, but I feel that this path will lead me to a couple of major roads before too long.

Moving forward, I will start to look a bit more at the idea of online identities and their relationship with reputation—and I’ll try to remember that my PhD is not about privacy*. I’ll be investigating issues of multiple identities (personas/personalities) including pseudonyms and anonymous accounts and how they’re used in an online environment—as well as some of the recent discussions around requirements for the use of “real names” by organisations like Google and Huffington Post.

I hope to have a bit more clarity on my research soon, at which time I will try to be a bit less vague in what I’m sharing. In the mean time, if you have any great resources you wish to share with me on reputation and identity, please feel free to contact me or comment below!

* I’ll talk about my desire to keep privacy on the fringe of my research later—after I’ve clarified it all a bit more in my own mind.