Organising and reading literature, business, social sciences, humanities


Researchers review literature for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the most important of these is to pull together what has been written on the problem or focus area in order to highlight the significance or importance of the present research. This is presented in the introduction and the literature review sections of the research proposal. Researchers also review literature to define key terms, to explain the context of the research, and to explain and justify the methodological rationale of the research. Once the data has been collected, the literature becomes important in determining what is 'interesting' (that is, new in the field) that should be prioritised in results reporting. And discussion sections then compare and contrast the findings with existing research. Organising literature and reading effectively is then critical to almost every aspect of the research and writing process.

There are several steps to organising your literature:

  • Searching
  • Recording
  • Prioritising
  • Retrieving
  • Reading and writing 
  • Critiquing
  • Filing

Typically we move across these stages non-sequentially.


  1. You might start your literature search by speaking with your supervisor and other academics and students working in your topic and discipline area for key readings relating to your topic.
  2. Check the references used in key texts. Are there some that are recurring, or that focus specifically on your area of interest? If so, they are probably worth looking at.
  3. Use the search option on the web sites of key journals to locate articles of direct relevance to your topic.
  4. It is recommended that you make an appointment with Academic Library Services. There is a team of academic librarians for each academic area and research concentration. They will advise you about searching options and resources relating to your topic. In addition, you can attend the library workshops within EDGE and use the library’s on-line tutorials.
  5. Work through the relevant catalogues, databases, indexes, bibliographies and web-sites.
  6. Set up journal alerts.
  7. Think about synonyms for keywords (eg prisons, correctional services, goals, remand centres, detention centres). It may be necessary to consult encyclopaedia, dictionaries, thesauri and other resources in the Reference Collection to find these. 


  1. Set up your information management system (Refworks or Endnote).
  2. Keep a record of key words searched to save duplication.
  3. Keep a record of the catalogues, databases, indexes, bibliographies and web-sites you have searched. Make a note of what they cover and where and how they can be accessed.
  4. Keep a file with the above information in it for handy future reference.
  5. Develop the habit of screening the literature for relevance before you record it, download it, print it out, or order a hard copy. This way you will not become overwhelmed with all of the reading that you have to do.
  6. Record your reasons for excluding and including literature as you go. This will need to be provided in your writing.
  7. Record citation details of relevant literature and where it is located (catalogue number, database, book shop).
  8. Check referencing guides and use a pre-defined referencing style that is appropriate for your discipline. Getting into good habits early is important.
  9. Use the HELP information on databases to find out what save options are available.


  1. From reading the titles and abstracts, or based on advice from your supervisor, prioritise the literature that you have identified and make a note of why it has a high, medium or low priority (at this stage).
  2. You might consider what time period you need to read for—contemporary research developments, earlier seminal works.
  3. Nominate the most important texts for your research proposal—key theories/research in your area, most recent findings.
  4. Differentiate between textbooks, research articles and books, and books written for non-academic audiences. For the most part, particularly at the research proposal stage, you will be most interested in reading academic literature within your field in order to support your research gap.
  5. When using referencing software such as EndNote or Refworks where items within databases can be directly imported, try not to get distracted by the technology. There is no advantage to having 2000 references in the database if their relationship to the topic is unclear. Being selective at every stage of the literature review process will help to avoid becoming overwhelmed with  information.


  1. Print off or save journal articles from the databases, photocopy articles and chapters (making sure you comply with copyright regulations) and borrow books you have decided warrant a close reading.
  2. At this stage try to limit the number of books you buy. Most of the literature will be available through the University, but research degree students also have access to inter-library loans, and have borrowing rights with the University of Adelaide and Flinders University.


  1. Before reading you may want to scan the title, headings, summary or abstract, introduction and conclusion, and first and last paragraph and sentence.
  2. Be clear about your purpose for reading before you start. The most important first step in reading is understanding the main finding or argument of the paper or book, and the implications of that finding. The finding or argument could have implications for practice, for future research, for theoretical understandings, or for methodology. The next step is to read for similarities and differences in findings and points of view, underlying assumptions, strengths and weaknesses, and finally how the key idea of the paper relates to your own research.
  3. Have a rough estimate of how long it will realistically take for you to read the piece. Most people would only be able to properly read between one to four papers in a day.
  4. Write about what you are reading. This is the best way to ensure that you have understood what you have read. It also ensures you are not wasting time reading something that you will soon forget about.
  5. Use the Research reading log below to ensure you are reading in a disciplined manner. You might like to attach it to papers in your file, or more likely to reproduce it within your end note library within the notes section for the relevant entry.  
  6. You may want to adapt your reading log, adding specific questions related to different aspects of your research writing to guide your reading. Try to focus these questions on aspects of your own research that you need to write about. Don't get side tracked on interesting, but irrelevant detail. Write down answers to the questions as you go.
  7. Fill in the reading log as you read, trying to write down the main idea in your own words without referring to the text. Then see if you have an accurate take on the piece by going back and checking. This helps to ensure you are engaging with the main ideas, and prevents misconstruing the ideas of others. 
  8. Allow time to preview and review what you have read at the beginning and end of reading sessions. 
  9. Try not to get stuck on the detail, or read simply for what you find interesting or inspiring. Try to develop a systematic and disciplined approach to reading that aims primarily to understand what others in your field have found or are arguing. You are reading for an understanding of the main ideas.
  10. For really difficult texts consider allowing considerable time for re-reading, form a reading group, discuss the text with your supervisor or other academics, or refer to a secondary guide.
  11. A mind map may be useful to organise timelines, similarities and differences, conceptual distinctions, or topic areas.
  12. You may want to highlight important sections of text and make notes in the margin to save searching later on.
  13. When you are finished reading and summarising the text, think about where it should be physically located within your filing system. Be sure to write the author, topic name or file number, and any cross referenced filing codes on the hard copy itself so that the text can be easily replaced after reading. It can be helpful to write in pencil since your filing system will change as your ideas progress.
  14. When taking notes, clearly signal direct quotes and paraphrasing in your summary to prevent possible plagiarism later. Always keep the page numbers with anything taken directly from the text.
  15. Avoid secondary references, go to the original to ensure an accurate reading of the text whenever possible.

Research reading log                 

Author’s name/s

Date of publication


Title of article/chapter

Editor’s name/s

Title of Book or Journal


Place of publication



Volume number




Call number

Reference no.


Central argument or finding  


The paper argues that ... .

The findings show that ... .


Implications of the finding, argument, conclusion (for theory, methodology, policy, practice, other outcome) ... what we should do according to the author given the finding ... the solution offered as a result of the finding/argument


The findings are read to suggest that ... .


Methods and methodology adopted to reach finding/argument


The findings are based on ... methods.

The study is based on a ... methodology assuming that ... .


What other assumptions/concepts/theories form the basis of the question, argument, conclusions?


The argument/interpretation of findings assumes that ... .

The findings are based on ... theory which holds that ... .

The concept of ... is used to explain ... .


Similarities and differences between the central argument/finding and its implication compared to other liteature I have read


The argument agrees with those who argue that ... .

The findings concur with the conclusion that ... .

This argument/finding is different from others on the problem area because ... .


What do the findings, argument, conclusions cover or hold that is different from what I want to explore?

Are they adequate to answer my question/focus? If not, why not? What are the strengths and weaknesses of findings, argument, conclusions?


The paper highlights ... , but does not consider ... .

The assumption/focus/sample/etc of ... does not account for ... . This leaves unanswered questions about ... .


Reading log print version


  1. Adopt an organised approach to filing from the start.
  2. References can be filed alphabetically by author's name, or be given a number that corresponds to your electronic database where you can search for it by topic, theme or key word.
  3. Alternatively you can organise files under conceptual or topic headings and sub headings. The filing process can then help to determine the structure of your writing. You may group together literature that is relevant to the discussion of the problem and context of the research, or which defines key terms (which you will refer to mostly in the introduction of the proposal and thesis). You may group together literature that introduces the field/s of enquiry and different approaches to the problem or focus area (which will be referred to in the 'literature review' section of the proposal and thesis), and literature that justifies your choice of methods and methodology (which will be referred to in the research design section of the proposal and thesis). Be sure to devise a cross referencing system since some texts will relate to more than one section of research writing.
  4. Continue to organize and re-organize your literature and files at every stage of the planning and writing process, from the library search to the final draft.
  5. Files can also be organised into several different types:
  • Working files—files you are currently working on. Keep working files close to hand. Ideally you would be able to reach them without leaving your chair.
  • Reference files—files that contain material you refer to from time to time, but not every day. These might be stored in a filing cabinet not immediately accessible from your desk.
  • Archives—files that contain ‘just in case’ material. Completed projects fall into this category. Only hold these files if necessary, and think of them as heading for the recycling bin. Keep these files separate from your other files.
  • Tickler files—files that are useful for people who have multiple roles or responsibilities such as a job, a thesis, and a family. These files are organised by day of the week, or maybe days of the month. Place papers under the weekday that they will be needed for. Each day check the tickler file and collect the papers you need. 
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich
Last modified: Friday, 2 October 2020, 6:02 PM