How do you get from “pre-research” to search, and then research?

Last time I posted about “pre-research”, I talked about moving from pre-research into searching and then researching for a literature review. I said:

Finally, I would go to the library to find scholarly books and articles,and to the archive to find primary sources. Because of the pre-research I had done, I already had a significant list of the scholarly books and articles that I would cite in my academic writing. 

And that’s mostly true, but it skips over a couple of stages. I had these extra stages in my original post… but that made it over 2k words long… so I broke these out into their own post, because I think they deserve them, and then found I had another long post! I hope you find it helpful!


We pick up the research process after using lectures, reference books (and maybe Wikipedia), and conversations with my supervisor. It’s a this point that we are finally ready to dive into the scholarly literature. 

[and so…], I would go to the library to find scholarly books and articles,and to the archive to find primary sources.

Because of the pre-research I had done, I already had a significant list of my search list, which would become my skim-reading list, which would be narrowed down even further to my reading list, which would be narrowed down even further to my bibliography, the scholarly books and articles that I would actually cite in my academic writing

What are these various lists of books and articles, the ‘search’ list, the ‘skim-reading’ list, the ‘reading’ list and the ‘bibliography’? What do you mean they aren’t all the same thing? 

Long time readers of the site know that one of my biggest insider tips is about understanding how to manage literature. As a literary scholar, I know the questions about what is ‘valid’ or what is ‘reading’ are more nuanced than, say, ‘is it scholarly?’ or ‘is it right?’ or ‘did I understand what this paper is saying?’

  1. Don’t forget that all possible knowledge includes stuff in people’s heads they haven’t published yet, unpublishable papers, Indigenous and oral and traditional knowledges, knowledge in non-scholarly formats, forgotten knowledge and knowledge in other languages. There’s a lot of it!
  2. If you use a copyright library, or access a major knowledge database like Web of Science or MLA, every search will bring up far more articles than you could ever read. 
  3. Even within your field of researchers, it will be impossible to know everything. (See point 1).
  4. What you are looking for, at this first stage, is to work out where everyone else is working, and start there. This is what ‘everyone knows’ and as a beginner, you need to know it too. 
  5. If you have read enough in a field, you can’t list everything you have ever read about the topic, only the things that are relevant to this particular bit of writing

Even more importantly, don’t forget that not all reading is done in the careful way you learned to read in high school English, or in your English language classes as you were learning the language. That is one way of reading, and a good one. But other forms of reading are also valuable. 

Imagine your references as something in a target. Smaller than all knowledge, smaller than what’s in your library and databases, smaller than your field, not everything everyone else cites. First you find the heat map where everyone else is reading, and within that, select the references that are going to be relevant to your work.

In practice, this turns into 4 lists. 

You start with the Search list:
The list of things you have picked up from other people’s citations, from lectures, from reading lists etc that look relevant. Also works which have been recommended by colleagues–I get a lot of these from Twitter these days, but symposia, seminars and conferences, supervisors and fellow researchers who email you recommendations are also common sources.
You will also be interrogating the databases with your own terms, but that’s about casting a wide net to see if you’ve missed anything–first of all you should absolutely go in looking for specific things you already know to expect will be useful.
The search list leads to you literally finding the items: downloading them from your library repository, hunting them down on an open access repository, requesting them from the author, finding them on the bookshelf, requesting them from storage, or requesting an interlibrary loan. It’s amazing how often we forget that the searching stage is important, time consuming and essential to good research. 

Then move up to a Skim-reading list:
Not everything on your list is actually worth reading, or worth reading now, or worth reading in full. See my earlier post on reading like a pirate! 
Use the metadata (blurb, abstract, headings, bibliography, index) to help you make an assessment.
I skim articles before I decide to print them out. I also make a pile of likely books, if I’m in the stacks at the library, and skim through them all before making a smaller pile to actually borrow and take home. Sometimes I’ve used Google Books or similar to see if something is useful before I get up from my desk!
The title and abstract may look promising, but as you glance through the article, you see it is not relevant to this project. To read it properly is wasting your time. Put it aside. (Yes, put it aside with your Reading FOMO. It’s okay.)
Do make a note that you have looked at the work in case you want to come back to it for another project, or remember why you haven’t read it even though it has such a useful-sounding title. 

Now you have a traditional Reading list:
Books you actually check out the library. Articles you actually print out. Works I read, annotate, and take notes onThings I will almost certainly use, quote or cite in my work. These are things I might read once, or I might do a deep dive (like for a poem or a significant theorist) and read it over and over again

And finally you get to your Bibliography:
Some fields quote everything they have read in their bibliography. In my field, Bibliographies don’t even include everything you mention in your footnotes. A bibliography is designed to be a representative reading list for scholars who come after you.
Exactly what that looks like depends on your field and the publication type.


A final thought: How long should your bibliography be? 

For this post, I did a quick survey. In most fields, the bibliographies had something like between 1-3 bibliography items for each printed page (assuming a thesis is double line-spaced, and a typical book/article is published on smaller paper, this is about the same number of words in the text).  Typically, the articles were closer to 2.5 or 3 items per page, books closer to 1-1.5. Short science articles (4-5 pages) tend to have much higher ratios of 5-9 items in the bibliography for each published page, and one Nature article had a ratio of 1:17! 

There is no right or wrong answer here, just what is normal in your field. In my field, each citation takes up a lot of space in the written text because you would often quote it and add further explanation; whereas in science you would almost never quote from another article or spend word count on unpacking their ideas in depth.


I hope you found this unpacking of the reading and research process useful. This is exactly what Research Degree Insiders is all about: getting down into the invisible, mundane or overlooked sections of the research process that people forget to tell you about–but that make all the difference in smoothing the journey!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

On rejecting feedback

You might worry that examiners and reviewers will outright reject your work if you don’t accept every single piece of feedback, but I can tell you from experience, that is not true. I first had to learn how to reject feedback for my PhD examination, and have used the same skills to deal with journal articles, monographs and how-to books. It’s not IF you accept the feedback, it’s HOW you reject it that will matter in deciding whether the final piece is acceptable.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts