Literature searching (and writing) – the best and worst bits!

Blog 6

Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to narrow down my literature search to find journal articles that are meaningful to the research. For me, this meant that I wanted to find articles that I could eventually include and discuss and that would be relevant. However, I now understand that I may have misunderstood what the process actually is and that I am not just searching for relevant information, but information that is not. Some of the process is finding and reading (and annotating) all of the information that is also not relevant yet but some that might be in the future. During my research induction, one of the students explained that they felt they had wasted their time taking a whole day searching and reading for things that they found to be pointless. It’s not pointless. It is all part of finding what is right and definitely what is not. How else are we going to know what articles are more suitable if we have not read the ones we feel don’t match the criteria of our search, or the ones that we feel just aren’t right? If we spend a whole day searching databases, journals and catalogues for articles on a particular topic that we later find is not relevant, it is still not pointless. Its research. Did Jeske and Stamov Roßnagel (2015) just pick the first articles they found relevant when carrying out a conceptual literature review?…probably not. I’d assume they used a more systematic approach and had to narrow down what was best, most likely discarding pieces of research along the way that did not quite fit. But this is just me, that is just my opinion and the only way to know how it was done is to ask.

As research students we are learning from our literature searching that the articles may not fit, but we are also giving ourselves the opportunity to explore the literature a little further in doing this. What I find most interesting is that I have had several days like this, but I am yet to feel was pointless. Instead, I have reflected on it (albeit slowly) and come to realise that those articles I have found that are not yet relevant, may be useful for me later on or even to someone else who may be needing them in the future. It is the process of our own learning, or learning that everything does not run smoothly and everything does not happen in a linear fashion. We search as we want to find but what we find might not exactly match what we want to search and so on.

A good example of my ‘not so relevant’ searching becoming relevant was at a recent training event that I attended. The guy in charge, Fraser, just happened to be the Director of a training organisation who delivers external training on Project Management to whoever might need it, including organisations and universities. Fraser has made a career out of his passion and more recently decided to embark on the journey of a piece of doctoral research (I do believe he said he did a DBA). Now I did not get the opportunity to ask him about his research, but I most certainly wish I had – I really wish I had. It was not until I searched his LinkedIn profile that I found out that his piece of research was primarily concerned around the literature that I was current reading and writing about – bingo! So I emailed him and asked about it, you know, being the nosy person I am. He explained where I could find his research and even suggested parts that might be relevant. I found it really interesting that he mentioned a model by a researcher called Donald Kirkpatrick which I had just read about in my own literature searching just days before (WOW!). The article I had read was by Sacks and Burke (2012) who based their own research on Kirkpatrick’s model and evaluated training transfer in terms of the four criteria proposed by Kirkpatrick: reactions, learning, behaviour and results. Just like Fraser, they used this model in the study design and evidenced reasons for wanting to use it. So, although it is something that may not appear in my own research directly, it was beneficial for me to see how a piece of research I had read influenced my own understanding of another person’s research, as well as being able to see how research can be used in the more practical sense of training evaluation.

Something else I have noticed is that there are a LOT of articles in the workplace learning and knowledge management literature (that I have read so far) which seem to repeat what other authors have done and seem to say similar things. But there is one main difference. The main difference is what the authors get out of writing the article, their arguments and how they feel their research is relevant. This is what helped get the research published amongst various other things so I think it’s important to take this all on board. In a PhD (or in my case, working towards hopefully a PhD after my annual review decision), it is a journey, a journey of exploration and finding out why? Why do you want to do this research? Why does the research have importance and most importantly how can we back these claims up?

So this brings me onto the literature searching I have been doing over the past couple of weeks. After a brief discussion with one of my supervisors (who focuses a lot on employment, skills, training etc.), it became apparent that we were both starting to question more methodological issues, with focus on what we were trying to ‘measure’. Now from this conversation alone, it turns out that defining what you mean is difficult but by looking at my research, training and skills were one aspect that might come into play. So my task was as follows: do a brief literature review and find out what the meaning of training is, what we want to measure and how we can do this. It wasn’t as easy as you may think!

I started off with a brief plan of what I was looking for and parts on what I might want to say. Then I started my search. Firstly I did a general ‘key-term’ search on databases, Google Scholar and specific employment and training related journals themselves. This was great, I got loads of articles – none of which were relevant. Back to the drawing board. Secondly I then tried to narrow my search putting in key phrases and searching individual journals for recent publications. This highlighted a few articles but nothing of any significance to me just yet. Finally, I just started reading and it was from that reading that I found others. Researchers had mentioned other researchers and from this I was able to find some that were more relevant but still found that they all did not gel together. Now I did question why this had happened…

Firstly, training is HARD to define regardless of what you believe it is. So to start my search this is what I found:

Training is seen as a method for enhancing human performance. Whatever the individual and organisation feel they are lacking, whether it be knowledge on a certain topic, the inability to successfully complete a task or wanting to develop skills, training will be directed to help bridge this gap and provide the individual or groups with the necessary information to be able to work towards their goal (Silberman & Auerbach, 2006).

Quite frankly, training is hard to define as it is so individualistic and there are that many variables that we need to consider that there may never be one definite answer. It depends on what the organisation requires, who they are, how many people they need to train and so on… and after that, it depends on who delivers the training, what skill / quality you wish to train employees in etc etc. I could go on. For me, I felt that part of this searching and writing was a little off-topic but I could see where it was heading in terms of my research.

What I got from this “literature review” was something different altogether. I did not find that I had travelled leaps and bounds I searching for articles and writing about them, no. Although there were some interesting reads thrown in. What I did find out was that the feedback from my supervisors on my writing helped me the most. So although I may question why I wrote this piece of work and sometimes wonder what the purpose of it was, some things do stand out to me:

  1. Read as much as you can, write about it. Then side-line it is you need to. It’s not always about how relevant it is, it can also be about how relevant it’s not.
  2. Write, write and write some more. If you can give your supervisors work to mark and give you feedback, then do it. I found that this was really helpful to explore how my writing style / format needed to be tweaked and altered a little. This is normal. For me, I had not written academically for at least three years (give or take the little bit I wrote in my internship etc.) so I needed this to help shape my own writing. I needed my supervisor to tell me how she thought my writing was and how I could improve. And she did. That I respect.
  3. Nothing is pointless. It is a journey of discovery whether that be discovery and learning about your literature, your own writing style or even about what you feel you are capable of, it is all part of the process. You might sit back and think ‘what on earth have I been doing?!?’ but it is that process of reflection that is seen to be an important aspect in progress so if you are already doing that then good – you are learning!

Okay, I think I might have blabbed a little but I hope you get my point. My last and very final point of the blog post is this: if you get stuck, struggle or question ‘why?’ then tell you supervisor and your colleagues. They are there to help. So when you feel things are pointless, you are unsure of what you have done / are doing, or you just need to get it all out and cry – go to them. You don’t need to struggle along and most likely, they will have either done it themselves before or know someone who has so will be able to help to pick you up and help you get your confidence back to fly again.


Jeske, J., & Stamov Roßnagel, C. (2015). Learning capability and performance in later working life: towards a contextual view. Education + Training, 57(4), 378-391.

Sacks, A.M., & Burke, L.A. (2012). An investigation into the relationship between training evaluation and the transfer of training. International Journal of Training and Development, 16(2), 118-127.

Silberman, M., & Auerbach, C. (2006). Active Training: A Handbook of techniques, Designs, Case Examples and Tips (p.1). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

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