Unlocked potential: open-access tools to jump-start the literature review process
In the digital age, access to datasets and research papers is readily available online – a convenience that has proven invaluable during lockdown (or if you are unable to access a library). The evidence base of CO:RE – Children Online Research and Evidence offers information on research projects and publications focusing on the broad area of children online across Europe. Online databases such as CORE, EBSCO Essentials, Science Open and ERIC can help generate a reading list (for free!). But when you type ‘children and media’ into Semantic Scholar, for example, the sheer number of results returned (77,500) can be overwhelming, especially if you are new to a research area and don’t know where to start.
The first step is to determine the keywords in your subject area. Careful consideration is required because this selection will not only guide your search but also affect the literature you will read. If you’re studying children and media, then this CO:RE theory resource (which offers an overview of key areas in the field, along with an annotated bibliography) will start you off on the right track.
Let’s say you’re interested in conducting research on European children’s internet use, and you come across the Livingstone et al. (2018) article about assessing the past and anticipating the future. Reading the abstract will help you quickly determine whether the paper is of interest to your own literature review, and the bibliography will map relevant research in the field.
Academic literature forms a vast network that connects via citations and footnotes. Thankfully (for researchers new to the field), there are several software programs that retrieve and analyse academic citations, providing key metrics that help speed up the exploration process. To illustrate, the following is a visualisation of the aforementioned article’s bibliometric network:
Not only does the graph cluster papers according to similarity and strength of connection, but also the size of the node denotes number of scholarly citations. This tool allows you to obtain a rough sketch of the landscape before delving deeper into the subject matter of interest.
Several different types of free software provide tools to help you discover connections between the literature (Citation Gecko, Gephi, Litmap, VOSviewer), but the one you choose may be determined by personal preference. In my opinion, Connected Papers presents the information in a clear and straightforward way, and the well-designed site navigation allows users to quickly find the information they need.
Only one seed paper is required to generate results, and in addition to ‘derivative works’, selecting ‘prior works’ will introduce new scholars to the seminal texts in the field, for the most part. There is always a chance that something can be missed, in which case, starting with a small set of ‘seed papers’ (5-6) may ensure that you have your bases covered. Inciteful is a free software program that allows you to iteratively add interesting papers and further refine your search through keyword, distance and year filters.
Once you’ve generated your initial reading list, the next step is fairly obvious: read the articles. However, it might not be so straightforward if there are access issues. Not all academic work is hidden behind a paywall, though. Adoption of open access is rising, and so are the tools to help you find legally available manuscripts and peer-reviewed articles. If an article is published with open access, you’ll be able to obtain it directly from the journal’s website for free. If you’re looking for a tool that filters your search by open access, then Dimensions will allow you to do so according to the various tiers (and provides the added bonus of key publication information and metrics in the sidebar). To ensure that you make the most of advances on the open-access front, check out the O.A. toolkit. You can also use the Open Access Button to initiate a search, or you can install the browser extension.
This blog post has outlined some free and open software tools to help you perform a literature search. Hopefully, the method will both introduce you to relevant knowledge in the field and lead you to a better understanding of where your own research interests fit. Because open-access software, databases and articles allow for scholarly research to be disseminated more widely, they offer the potential to improve education globally and advance social scientific discovery.
However, it’s important to bear in mind that open access removes only one barrier on the pathway to success in academic publishing.