When enough is enough? – about a literature review

It is a question which I still don’t know how to answer….
I have this tendency, and I am not sure if it is because curiosity or perfectionism, that I want to include in my writing (no matter if it is a thesis or a paper) almost all literature which exists in a particular topic. I am totally crazy with “original sources” (my students from Bremen know something about that ;)), that is why I always try to go to this very old books, and papers, and read them by myself than “cite someone who cite someone”, and rely on what other people wrote about this or that work. In the end I spend hours going from one book to another, from a reference list in one article to dozens of new pdf. downloaded, and it is like a ”never-ending story”….

And I always ask myself the question – when enough is enough?

When I can say that I covered most important authors in the field? (by the way, two day ago I found this two extremely interesting posts starting the #phd – searching the field and the literature review – how old are the sources?  by Pat Thomson).

For last three days I have been writing a paper, it is the joint paper. We are going for a conference next week, and we want to improve the paper after the conference, and submit it in the beginning of November. When I was preparing my part of a conceptual framework for research during summer holidays I did a quick literature review. I am not totally new in that field, but I also needed more knowledge. Now during writing a text to a chosen journal I see all this imperfections of the quick literature review, and now I spend hours looking for more and more sources, because I have this feeling that it is not enough and some important works and authors are missing. And I am not proud of me that I did it not in a proper, in my opinion, way.

The literature review is a crucial part of PhD writing. You need to be aware what has been already done in your field, you should know the most important names, and also it is good to be aware of new waves of research and approaches in your field.
What is “my” proper way to do the literature review?

  • Start with the most know authors and works in the field. Read their works, and write your own summary (remember to put a right source description and a page number when you copy some quotations – it will save your time later when you want to use them in a paper or a thesis).
  • Reading empirical papers or literature review papers go always to a reference list, and go to the original sources
  • Prepare a mind map/ scheme/ diagram of your topic, and related authors
  • Writing the literature review go from the oldest authors to the newest one, to show the evolution of the concept, or theory.

What I have found in my field is that the newest papers are in most cases just an empirical application of concepts built in the previous decades. The newest concpets which I used were developed in 90., I think… So that is why I think that it is important to go by your own to original sources, and original authors of the concept, because we should understand the concept how it was built in the beginning, to be able to base our research on it, to be able to judge nowadays criticism of the concept, or to be able to observe an evolution of the concept.

You can say that it is also the “never-ending story”. What I learned during last 3 years is that simultaneously to your literature review you should think about your own research concept. Write your draft title, think about your research questions, try to think about methods etc. Discuss it with your supervisor, with other professors, with your friends, with people on conferences. Then they start asking question, they start recommending literature, they start showing you another possibilities. You come back to home totally confused, thinking that your idea is “sucks“. Then you start thinking about what they told, and you start searching the new literature, gaining more knowledge… and then write down your “evolved concept” again, and talk with people again, and go to new sources again… and this sequence had gone a few times in my case, till I developed my final concept. As my second supervisor said – “during working on empirical part of your work probably you will improve your literature review again”.

Some part of my literature review I wrote in Bremen, but still, most of it has to be written. And again during writing, I will ask myself the question – “When enough is enough?”


Usefule links:

https://patthomson.net/about/ – Pat Thomson website


Reflections after one week with the new work system 


Jorge’s cake (a.k.a. Swedish wet chocolate cake) 


  1. Akezali Martínez

    It sounds difficult :O

  2. Doktora


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