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Mapping a new field of scholarship

One of the first questions I get asked on Twitter (I’m at @raulpacheco) is: “how do I get started on X?” It’s always hard because to be perfectly honest, a lot of things I don’t even realize how I got started, I just know that I now know how to do them. And because I actually do know how to do them, I share openly with the world. Mapping new fields of scholarship is something nobody taught me how to do, but I’ve developed a strategy throughout the years that works for me, and it may work for you too.

AcWri at home - paragraphs

The process I use to map a new field of scholarship looks something like this:

  1. Decide on the topic of interest.
  2. Ask trusted advisors for suggestions of key citations and/or authors.
  3. Run a citation tracing process on the above-mentioned cites and authors.
  4. Run a Google Search for top-cited papers in the field.
  5. From Steps 3 and 4, create a mind map of key authors and topics.
  6. Choose 3-7 articles for the topic, and 3-5 for each sub-topic.
  7. Read (or if under extreme time pressure, apply AIC Content Extraction and Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method) to create a visual and analytical map of the field.
  8. Expand the mind-map as necessary and continue searching and reading/annotating/highlighting/scribbling until I reach conceptual saturation.

Now, let’s go through step by step:

1. Decide on the topic of interest.

Here, I knew I wanted to do a paper on informal water vending.

2. Ask trusted advisors for suggestions of key citations and/or authors.

3. Run a citation tracing process on the above-mentioned cites and authors.

I already knew that Quentin Grafton had done work on the Murray-Darling basin and on formalized water markets, so I searched for him and did a citation tracing process.

quentin grafton

4. Run a Google Search for top-cited papers in the field.

I would also add that you can run a Google Scholar Search on the authors you KNOW work in the field too.

5. From Steps 3 and 4, create a mind map of key authors and topics.

This is where asking authors, or meeting them at conferences helps. I know several of the authors I have mentioned very well, including Michelle Kooy (who like me did her PhD at UBC), Malini Ranganathan, etc.

6. Choose 3-7 articles for the topic, and 3-5 for each sub-topic

Here, I knew I needed to read Michelle Kooy, Amber Wutich, Andrea Marston (I’ve already read them, but again, let’s assume I haven’t – my mind-map and Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump both show I would need to read them in order to get a grasp on the field of water and informality)

7. Read (or if under extreme time pressure, apply AIC Content Extraction and Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method) to create a visual and analytical map of the field.

8. Expand the mind-map as necessary and continue searching and reading/annotating/highlighting/scribbling until reaching conceptual saturation.

While I have a good mind-map of what the field of water informality and the continuum/spectrum/divide of formal and informal water markets looks like, I still need to read more to reach conceptual saturation. So, I go back to Step 1 in this process until I’ve found the right number of citations (I’ve written on this topic before, i.e. when to stop reading and how to decide when you have got enough sources and you’ve read enough).

My entire set of posts on Literature Reviews can be found here if you need to search for a specific technique I’ve mentioned in this blog post.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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