Skip to content

How many sources are enough? Six questions on breadth and depth of literature reviews

The first question I posed in the title of my blog post is one that all of my students (undergraduate and graduate) and most of my research assistants ask me: how do I know when I’ve read enough for a literature review? The answer is never clear cut, unfortunately. I am someone who loves reading, and who needs to read broadly because his own work is interdisciplinary. I’m also quite systematic in how I read, and I prefer to err on the side of having TOO MANY sources rather than be accused of not knowing the field.

I also realize not everyone has the time to be on top of the literature, particularly with teaching, service, family and caring and research obligations. I am going to answer the top six questions I get asked on breadth and depth of literature reviews, and in doing so, I am going to suggest a few shortcuts that may help narrowing a literature review search and finding the “sweet spot” where you’ve read enough that you feel confident enough to start writing your paper, chapter or thesis.

Reading and #AcWri on the plane

1. How many sources should I read for my literature review?

This is an absurd question that is prompted by arbitrarily setting a random number of sources as “enough”. If you read the right five sources, you’ve probably covered a full field. But if you read 40 sources that all tend to pull in different directions, you’ll still be unable to cover all the sources.

Here’s my totally non-scientific take for coursework-related materials: a final research paper should at least use 13 additional sources to those in the syllabus (one additional paper per week) for an undergraduate class, and an in-depth literature review for a graduate course should be in the realm of 26 (2 additional papers per week) to 39 (3 additional papers per week for PhD students). If somebody writes a final paper for my courses that only use the readings we did during the semester, it shows they didn’t go any further and I’ll probably penalize them.

2. Where do I get sources for my literature review if I am starting up a new topic? Well, here are a couple of strategies:

  • Read literature summaries and reviews published in journals.
    There’s plenty of journals now that provide reviews of the literature. Three I’m well aware of are WIRES (Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews) and Geography Compass, as well as Progress in Human Geography. When reading Progress in Human Geography, you probably want to look for the “Progress Reports”.
  • Search for “a review of the literature” or “a meta-review” type of articles (either Google Scholar or other online databases). These articles will usually provide a pretty extensive range of sources. Given their goal and scope, they’re also probably comprehensive enough. Meta-reviews tend to be more synthetic and provide a research agenda and specific research questions that need to be looked at in future research.
  • Ask specialists (or look for their work) for key citations from where you can do citation tracing. For example, if I were to do a search on water ethics, I would ask Christiana Peppard, Jeremy Schmidt, Lucy Rodina for suggestions. Or I would look for articles citing them. If I were to do something on climate politics, I’d look for Kathryn Harrison, Sarah Burch, Max Boykoff, Mat Patterson.

3. “When should I stop reading and start writing?”

My answer to that question is: you should be reading AND writing. Apparently, a lot of people feel like they need to Read All The Things before they can write a literature review. That’s why I always suggest that when you process a reading (a PDF or a printed source), you should generate at the very minimum a row entry in your Excel conceptual synthesis, and a synthetic note (or a rhetorical precis). Obviously, you gain a lot more if you write a full-fledged memo, but you may want to wait to write the memo up until you’ve read a few sources. But you should ALWAYS be writing as you read. You may not assemble the full literature review, but at least you can start with an annotated bibliography.

4. How do I know when to stop reading/researching/seeking more sources?

This is again a very tough question. Having mapped a very broad survey of the literature on informal waste picking, I can assure you that I felt I could not stop even after reading 50 articles. There is just simply too much published. But one of the reasons why I encourage my students to stop when they reach conceptual saturation (e.g. when they start seeing the same themes repeated over and over again) is because I don’t think you gain too much, marginally, from reading yet another paper on the same topic but using a different case study.

For example, I recently wrote a series of memorandums on the urban commons. I had basically mapped the entire body of works on urban commons using the first 10 citations I found on Google Scholar. However, I wanted to see how much more I could go in depth on the topic. What I found was that there were many case studies, but all using the same conceptual framework. So that’s when I stopped. When I saw that basically every other paper was a variation of the same central 10 ones, but using different case studies. I added those sources to my bibliography, but I didn’t need to incorporate them to my literature review.

Another way to respond to this question is: read enough to answer your questions properly.


The two biggest questions that probably would encompass the previous ones are related to breadth and depth.

5. How far reaching should your literature review be?

Scoping a literature review, as Dr. Pat Thomson shows here, is not an easy task. It requires us to search through many months or even years of published literature. I always do Google Scholar searches at least 7 years into the past (e.g. 2010 articles would totally be welcome, as would be books published in 2010) because of the very long lag-time that exists between submission, acceptance and publication. My citation tracing process also looks at the last 7 years of scholarship of key authors.

Then you have the other associated question – what about the “seminal” (I prefer the word fundamental) articles or books?

For me, this is the most challenging component. When I know a field very well (for example, agenda-setting theory in public policy), I can easily decide which authors I will be seeking (Stuart Soroka, Michael Howlett, Baumgartner and Jones, Kingdon). If I am doing policy design, I’ll go with Helen Ingram, Ann Schneider, etc. And then based on doing a citation tracing exercise, I will go to those younger scholars who are citing these key authors. But again, this requires you to know the field already.

This is where a supervisor, a coauthor, a colleague or a trusted scholar on Twitter may be helpful with narrowing the search scope. You can ask “who are the key authors I should be reading on Topic A” or “which are the key citations I should be looking at to get a grasp of Field B“. And then use those authors to create a map of the literature.

Stationery and research and reading

And the last question, which just about everyone asks me:

6. Do I need to do an in-depth reading of All The Things?

This is completely a question that has arbitrary answers and a broad range of parameters to work around. It also depends on what type of literature review you are writing. If you are, for example, preparing your doctoral comprehensive examinations, you DO want to read EVERYTHING and do so IN DEPTH. You need to demonstrate that you know your field of study, broadly and deeply.

However, if you are writing a literature review, for example, of agenda-setting theory and its applications to health policy, you may want to read in depth 5-10 articles on health policy, 5-7 articles on agenda-setting theory, and then start writing from there. Again, in-depth reading is correlated with the extent and degree to which you need to demonstrate that you know a field.

My method, as most people may have noticed, is usually as follows:

  • I read 5-10 citations that I find key. This reading is usually in-depth.
  • I create the set of questions I want to answer. I choose 3-5 citations around each question. All the reading associated with these questions I do using the AIC method, or skimming and scribbling unless I find key ones that need to be read in depth.
  • I write a memorandum for each one of the questions I’m trying to answer. In this memorandum, I assemble a mini-literature review that answers the question.
  • I fuse all the memorandums into a larger document where I have mapped out how each question (and answer) relates to the overall topic.
  • I read my entire literature review and restart with citation tracing until I reach concept saturation.

Hopefully this post will help those who are struggling with literature reviews, as the summer approaches! You may also want to revisit my Literature Review posts.

Posted in academia, research.

Tagged with .

Taking back your own time: No e-mail before lunch (noon)

I know I’m privileged in that my own institution and my colleagues are very respectful of my time. They’re also extraordinarily considerate of my schedules. I am very vocal about my routines, so anybody who either follows me on Twitter or interacts with me on a regular basis know a few things about my schedule.

  • I wake up very, very early (4 am) to start writing.
  • By the time I hit 11 am, I’ve already almost put in a full day of work.
  • If you want my undivided attention, schedule meetings with me any time after 11 am (preferably 12, 12:30 or 1pm).
  • I won’t be attending meetings scheduled 24 hours in advance. I simply won’t. My schedule fills up weeks in advance.
  • I break the rule above only with real emergencies, particularly when it has to do with students, payments, etc.
  • I tell people my response time is anywhere between 24 and 72 hours. If I don’t respond, send me a friendly reminder 3 days after your first email.

I remember Dr. Jo Van Every (a good friend of mine, and well-known academic coach) telling me that there are no emergencies in academia, and for the most part (99% of the time) I agree.

I’ve instituted a “No Email Before Noon” rule for a very long time. If you REALLY need to communicate with me, you probably have my iMessage, my Telegram, or my cell phone.

The problem with letting someone else control your day by sending you an important email BEFORE noon is that you are no longer in control of what you need to do. Write on your planner or your Everything Notebook those emails you need to respond to by a certain date.

I shared my “No Email Before Lunch” rule with my friends Dr. Josh Gellers and Dr. Amanda Bittner.

One thing that is important as numerous friends of mine ask me – is it ok if you only read or do research before noon or when you wake up early? I think it’s perfectly valid. Anything that moves your research forward (coding interviews, typing notes into your Excel conceptual synthesis, reading and scribbling, assembling or cleaning datasets, cleaning references in Mendeley) should be considered solid work.

A lot of people ask me if I do the same (no social media before lunch). I pre-schedule most of my content tweets, so I actually am writing or doing research while many of my tweets come out. I like answering to people because I think Twitter is and should be a conversation, so often times I answer tweets before noon while I’m having breakfast or commuting to work. But yes, no email before lunch is the best time saver I’ve found.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , .

The transnational life of Fiji bottled water

Fiji bottled waterFor my research on the politics of bottled water, I have been doing a lot of reading across different disciplines, from public health to environmental engineering, but I always come back to the excellent work of anthropologist Martha Kaplan. Professor Kaplan is at Vassar College and has done extensive work on bottled water, the local-global nexus and the nexus between rising consumption of bottled water and reduced usage of drinking water fountains. Professor Kaplan has looked at how different cultures value water and what these valuation processes look like in terms of strategies to engage with the worrisome global trend of growing consumption of bottled water. I have been thoroughly enthralled by the work of Professor Kaplan, and I find myself particularly fascinated with the ways in which she explores the global and local elements of bottled water consumption.

Fiji bottled waterI find myself weirded out by the sale of Fiji water anywhere in the world, but especially in a country like Mexico, where per capita bottled water consumption has risen to the point where Mexico is now the global leader. Obviously, packaging and selling the vital liquid in plastic bottles is big business in Mexico, and there is a clear interest on the part of transnational corporations in maintaining their market dominance. For me, it’s even more jarring that we effectively IMPORT bottled water given its price (a small bottle costs 46 Mexican pesos, which is about 2 dollars given the fast fall of the Mexican currency vis-a-vis the US dollar). This is one of the reasons why I find Professor Kaplan’s work on the transnational life of Fiji bottled water so fascinating.

Admittedly, Professor Kaplan assigns non-human agency to water itself (which I find slightly weird). Anybody who knows my work will know that I am not really well versed in, nor fond of, the material culture, actor-network theory literature. Nevertheless. I find Kaplan’s writing extraordinarily compelling and insightful, and I draw important lessons from her research for my own. I am particularly engaged with her piece writing a transnational biography of Fiji bottled water (using New York City as one of the locations for her analysis).

$2 USD may seem like a small price for a bottle of water, but given how much it actually really costs and the huge profit margin that bottling companies gain from extracting and packaging the liquid, I remain puzzled that some people in Mexico actually buy Fiji water. I am well aware of how consuming certain brands of bottled water may be seen as a status symbol (”for show off”) but paying $46 Mexican pesos just to look good consuming Fiji water seems a bit irrational and the price tag, a tad too steep.

I have previously written on how the mere existence of the bottled water industry means that we are effectively commodifying the human right to water. But nobody is really exempt from consuming bottled water anywhere in the world. Even in countries and cities where tap water is extraordinarily safe (like the case of Vancouver), I witnessed and documented an increase in consumption since 2009. One of the main reasons for the growth in bottled water consumption is a fear of the tap, as the recent Flint (Michigan, USA) case showed. Other reasons include structural barriers to encouraging tap water consumption, such as the lack of widely available public water fountains in public spaces, and the absence of refilling stations in malls, schools and other areas. These stations can be used by individuals to transport water across in portable bottles.

Bottled water

I have also argued before that ensuring and enacting the human right to water would signify the end of the global bottled water industry. Quite obviously, this may not sit well with the transnational corporations whose big business is packaging the scarce and vital liquid to profit from its sale and consumption. Moreover, these multinational enterprises are able to sustain dominance over domestic markets with the introduction of locally-producing water-packaging branches. These facilities produce at the local level, but their profits benefit the global company.

This dialogue between the global and the local is quite well described by Kaplan’s discussion of the consumption of Fiji bottled water in New York City:

“The politics of bottled water in both Fiji and the United States involve tense, interesting confrontations about public and private interests, legacies and opportunities, profit and meaning. It is not a simple story of Fijian noncapitalist purity and Western depredation. When it comes to water, like all commodities actually, neither demand nor supply are given, and how they relate to each other is something historically made in a dialogical process.”

Kaplan’s viewpoint is very well taken, and resonates with my own work. As I’ve argued elsewhere, understanding the politics of bottled water necessitates a dialogue between the local and the global. We need to broaden our understanding of how domestic consumption patterns are entangled with global economic forces and driven by policy failures as well as domestic political climates that encourage commodification of a human right rather than working together to solve local water utility problems through innovative delivery models. We need to work on understanding why Fiji water is perceived as “pure” whereas other brands may not enjoy this high status. Kaplan’s work helps understand how this phenomenon occurs as she finds that consumption of Fiji bottled water is not only acceptable but also encouraged in highly commodifying contexts (such as cities where status is perceived as an important individual quality – New York City, for example).

Posted in academia, bottled water, research.

Tagged with , .

Writing a memorandum based on a synthetic note

In previous posts I have addressed how to write rhetorical precis (very brief, four sentence summaries of the reading you are doing), synthetic notes (brief summaries of articles, focusing on the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion as per the AIC method), and memorandums (longer, 1000-2000 word briefings that synthesize the content of an article, but also engage with the broader literature). Recently, a number of people have asked me how they can extend a synthetic note and write a full-fledged memorandum based on it. This post is intended to explain my process.

I used an example of an article I was reading recently (Alida Cantor’s discussion of the material, political and biopolitical aspects of California water law in regards to wastewater) and live-tweeted my reading from it. I also tweeted examples of how I write the synthetic note and how I can draft the full-fledged memorandum based on the synthetic note. Below is the process I follow. You can also read the entire Twitter thread to check how I highlight and scribble, though I’ve written a post on my method that you can read by clicking on this hyperlink.

1. I highlight and scribble using the AIC method.

I focus primarily on the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion, as per my post. I think it’s important to be strategic about how we read, because otherwise we get overwhelmed with information. Since I’m attempting to write a synthetic note first, and then evolve it into a memorandum, I focus solely on AIC.

Note that while I focus on AIC, I ask four main questions:

  • What are the goals of the paper?
  • How do the author(s) do their analysis?
  • What are the main contributions of the paper?
  • What are the main findings of the research?

2. I type the full citation and abstract at the top of my memorandum (or synthetic note)

This is important as it allows me to quickly remember the main details of the article by reading the abstract. Having the article’s abstract available at the top, as well as the citation, allows me to copy and paste in case I need it for a larger document, like a paper, or an annotated bibliography.

3. For the synthetic note, I write the notes I scribbled on the margins and draw key quotations, but I ONLY focus on the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion.

This is important because I can get bogged down in details if I write my notes from the middle of the paper, or if I read and highlight the intermediate components. Remember that I usually write synthetic notes when I am being strategic about what I read. Therefore, if I am doing skimming and scribbling, and I want to get just the gist of a reading, I type a synthetic note.

From synthetic note to full-fledged memorandum

Here is where the process diverges from synthetic note to memorandum.

4. For the memorandum, I re-read the paper, but go through the intermediate parts (highlighting and scribbling, too)

I noticed as I was highlighting the Cantor article that I was writing a lot of notes and highlighting key quotations beyond the Abstract, Introduction, and Conclusion. That’s usually a give-away for when I need to delve deeper into a paper and go beyond meso-level reading to engaging deeply with the document.

From synthetic note to full-fledged memorandum

5. As I transcribe my notes from the middle of the paper, I create tables, summaries and link to the literature and other authors.

How do I know when a reading merits a longer memorandum?

That’s a great question. The Cantor 2017 case is a perfect example. It’s an article that is very rich with theoretical discussions (the definition of wastewater, the different theoretical perspectives one can take with regards to waste, the implications of merging geographies of waste literature with legal geographies scholarship), PLUS has great empirical components (focusing on California’s water law, given recent drought events and how California offers a great laboratory for testing theories of water governance). Below is my rule of thumb for choosing when to write full-fledged memorandums.

A reading where I write lots of notes on the margins, change colours throughout quite rapidly and draw several key quotations (several being more than 3), and where I find lots of interesting details in the middle of the paper (that is, beyond the AIC components) is definitely a document that will merit a full-fledged memorandum. See my notes on Cantor’s introductory pages and concluding pages.

Finally, one important thing that I do when I read is that I maintain Excel, Mendeley and Word all open at the same time. This is important because as I draw key quotations, I can copy them from the Mendeley-hosted PDF and paste them into the memorandum AND the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump.

Hopefully this post will help my readers understand the process I follow to expand a synthetic note into a memorandum.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

Tagged with , , .

They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (my reading notes)

When I wrote my blog post on how to properly teach our students how to do Description vs Analysis in their academic writing, I linked to a number of resources. The one that Dr. Omar Wasow (Princeton University) recommended was “They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing“, edited by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.


I do not teach argumentative writing (though CIDE, my institution, has a series of courses on this – which probably follow a different model because CIDE is a Spanish-speaking institution in a Spanish-speaking country), but I do teach courses in public policy where I need my students to conduct analyses. Since I teach all my courses in English, I needed a different model, particularly because I have noticed that sometimes students do not know how to write good analysis instead of providing very descriptive texts.

Omar’s recommendation is sincerely amazing. They Say/I Say is a relatively short book of templates that dissects how academic writing should engage in dialogue. I think the book is very well summarized in the following direct quote off of the text (p. 3):

“For us, the underlying structure of effective academic writing – and of responsible public discourse – resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind”

While the book offers a number of templates, the underlying logic of They Say/I Say is to enable students (and writers) to use those templates to create their own writing structures. That means, students can practice through adapting the They Say/I Say templates to the specific contents, disciplines and materials at hand. As Graff and Birkenstein say, you need to be “putting in your oar” (getting yourself involved in the writing)

#AcWri at the hotel in Copenhagen

Graff and Birkenstein author a large portion of the book, though a couple of chapters are invited. The first part of the book introduces models and templates to present others’ views and introduce what They Say. I’m not particularly fond of a few of the models they use to introduce ‘Standard Views” (”many people argue”, “since the dawn of time”, etc.) on pages 23 and 24, but the overall gist of the book is excellent and examples provided are super helpful, not only for students but also for early career scholars.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 2, “Her Point Is – The Art of Summarizing” (pages 30-40) because one of the skills I teach my research assistants and undergraduate/graduate students is how to write rhetorical precis and synthetic notes. This chapter provides students with templates for how to write solid summaries that then can be converted into full-fledged memorandums.

Chapter 3, “As He Himself Puts It – The Art of Quoting” (pages 42-50) should be mandatory reading for students, particularly because of all the recent cases of plagiarism in academic writing. This chapter teaches students how to properly do quotations and highlights the importance of attribution.

I also think these two chapters should be read in conjunction (if I may be so bold to suggest) with my posts on writing memorandums and the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (where you would be dumping your quotations). These chapters are also very good at helping students find the specific quotations they may need (particularly when the student is pressed for time and strategically triaging his/her reading packet for relevance).

Graff and Birkenstein show (in Chapter 4, “Yes/ No/ Okay, But – Three Ways to Respond“, p. 55-67) three different models of engagement with the literature (i.e. with what “They Say”): agreeing, disagreeing and somewhere in between. I tend to do a lot more contrasting in my own scholarly writing (i.e. “X argues that Z. However, I find that W”), but it’s very nice and useful to read different ways of engaging others’ arguments (AND the empirical evidence, which we often do not write about).

Home office in Aguascalientes

Perhaps the most important chapter for graduate students (not terribly important for undergraduates, in my view, but fundamental for Masters and PhD candidates) is Chapter 5, “And Yet – Distinguishing What YOU Say from what THEY Say, pages 68-75″. This chapter is key because the biggest challenge that graduate students tend to have in their writing (in my experience) is showcasing what THEIR own contribution is. This ability to produce text that highlights the writers’ own contributions is key when teaching description versus analysis in academic writing. I am also very glad that Graff and Birkenstein emphasize the importance of writing in the first person (”I find”, “I argue”, “I show”).

Chapter 6, which involves “inserting a naysayer into the conversation” wasn’t that appealing to me, to be perfectly honest. But Chapter 7 (”So What? Who Cares? Saying Why It Matters “, p. 92-100) helps the reader explain why the analysis presented throughout the paper may be useful. I am particularly fond as well of Chapter 8 (”As A Result: Connecting The Parts”, p. 105-117) because in this chapter Graff and Birkenstein demonstrate how to effectively tie an argument together by connecting all the different parts of an argument.

Graff and Birkenstein’s four strategies to connect sentences may make some educators cringe, because they use some of the connectors that often appear in lists of “words that should be banned” (also known as “wordy ways of saying things that you could more easily say in this other way”). Nevertheless, in my opinion, Graff and Birkenstein’s strategies are solid and I reproduce them right here (taken from page 108):

  1. Using transition terms.
  2. Adding pointing words.
  3. Developing a set of key terms and phrases for each text you write.
  4. Repeating yourself with a difference.

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

Chapters 13 (written by Christopher Gillen) and 15 (by Erin Ackerman) offer really excellent advice on how to use the They Say/I Say model in the natural sciences (Gillen, p. 156-174) and social sciences (Ackerman, p. 175-192). I will definitely use Chapter 14 by Erin Ackerman to teach my undergraduate and graduate students how to use the They Say/I Say model in public policy writing.

Overall, the Graff and Birkenstein “They Say/I Say” book is a fantastic introduction to how to write arguments and craft text that will be read in both natural and social sciences. Adding Gillen and Ackerman’s chapters was a genius move by Graff and Birkenstein, because the examples they provide are specific to natural sciences and social sciences/humanities. The chapters I have highlighted in these reading notes could possibly be used in a short course on academic writing based on the They Say/I Say model, although an instructor may want to also add the “But Don’t Get Me Wrong – The Art of Metacommentary” chapter 10, p. 129-137.

While I think Graff and Birkenstein is most suited to teaching how to do academic writing in the English language, I am sure you could adapt some of the lessons the authors present to Spanish (a language in which I will be teaching this fall). Hopefully my reading notes will be useful to educators who teach academic writing and how to write research papers.

Posted in academia, writing.

Tagged with , , .

Glorifying busy, the cult of productivity and the constant contradictions within academia

With the generous funding of CONACYT, Mexico’s research agency, I recently launched a project on water conflicts in Mexico. I hired a number of research assistants to my lab a couple of months ago. I am a lead PI with my co-PI being an expert in social network analysis from CentroGEO, Dr. Adriana Aguilar. One of the key elements of the project is the deployment of fieldwork to study six different water-related conflicts across the country. This, obviously, necessitates the coordination of a large research group, and one (very fair) question that my lab members asked was “how will we distribute workloads and assign responsibilities?” This is a question that obviously necessitates the use of a project management software tool. A few weeks ago, I had asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends for help finding the right project management software (I had used 5pm, BaseCamp, Micro$oft Project, but was recommended Asana, Trello, and others).

Puerto Vallarta Dec 2016 090

I offer this as as a key piece of context, because I have found myself for the past few weeks avoiding the never easy process of testing project management software that I know will be useful to my entire research team, and yet I haven’t made the time to test different project management tools. This is because, for better or worse, I have also conditioned myself to think of “producing” as “doing research, finding articles, analyzing data, writing up articles/book chapters“. It took me a while to realize that “producing” also implies “reading and grading undergraduate students’ essays, reading graduate students’ theses, writing letters of reference“. Or even testing new software. I avoid administrative work like the plague, but there are meetings that I can’t simply avoid because those short one-on-one meetups are the ones that allow me to give instructions on how funds should be allocated, deal with reimbursements, payments, etc.

Everything Notebook and travel kit

We have, in fact, glorified the idea of busyness, almost like a cult. Since grade school (see my threaded rant below), we have been conditioned to work on weekends. This is particularly true in academic life. To work all the time. Not surprisingly, my dear friend, Dr. Janni Aragon, also wrote about how we are conditioned to always being busy, since we are kids.

And I sincerely acknowledge that I have done the same, even on this blog. I have recommended my readers that they use even 15 minute pockets to do *some* writing. I have suggested that there are 7 ways to procrastinate productively. But as I’ve said before, several times already – academia itself as a profession and academic life is full of contradictions. Squarely against my “productivity tips”, I have written about how we can’t take shortcuts in academia and we need time to reflect and think and really process and soak ideas and mull over them, and think about their implications. I have written in praise of slow scholarship. This would seem, to those who don’t know me well, like a contradiction. But I believe it is not: I want to help you be a more productive academic, but I also want you to take time off, to take care of yourself, of make sure to slow down and don’t give into the glorification of busyness, don’t give into the cult of “productivity”. I have clearly said that there is no “magic bullet” for anything in academia. We are such a heterogeneous population that what works for me may, or may not, work for you.

And like Dr. Amelia Hoover Green said in her post on academia, productivity and mental health, I know that I can speak about taking time off because I’m privileged in the sense that my publication record is decent enough that my tenure case hasn’t been a concern at all. But I also want to acknowledge that this “go, go, go” mentality has had detrimental effects on my own health. I almost died of overwork, TWICE, in the last five years. This is not normal. This is not ok.

So let’s join Janni Aragon in her quest to “not glorify busy“. Busy should not be a status symbol.

One final note – I know I’m one of those people who says “I’m eternally busy”, which I definitely am. But I don’t use “busy” as a status symbol. I use “busy” as a signal to protect my time, and to teach myself to prioritize. I am eternally busy, but if an undergraduate student asks me to help him read an essay over, I WILL MAKE TIME. I am always on the go, travelling, researching, doing fieldwork, but I will connect to Skype at 3 am in the morning to have a conversation with one of my students on how she can deal with an issue at school. I am overwhelmed with the amount of work I have, but I will always make time to spend with my friends, go for a walk, or simply sit down and listen to whatever they need to share. I am fiercely protective of my time, and I know that I use the fact that I’m always busy as a signal, not that I feel like being busy is a status symbol, but as a means to show people in my life that I prioritize where I spend my time.

And sometimes, it’s important to spend that time, researching the best project management tools out there to share with my research lab members.

Or doing nothing and taking a few days off to relax on the beach.

Posted in academia, research.

Tagged with .

Distinguishing between description and analysis in academic writing

When I switched from chemical engineering (my undergraduate degree) to political science and human geography (my doctoral degree), I went through economics of technical change and international marketing (my Masters). But the chemical engineering component was still very strong during my Masters. I remember reading comments from a professor’s marker (yes, my professor didn’t even grade my essay!) saying “lacks analysis“.

Multiple laptops and desktop computer for #AcWri


Now, when I read student essays, or Masters/PhD theses, I find myself writing similar comments: “this is a very good description, but lacks real analysis“. I asked both the Political Scientists Facebook group (of which I’m proud of being part of) and the Research Companion Facebook group (a fantastic resource created by Dr. Petra Boynton, author of the book “The Research Companion”).

I received A LOT of really good feedback on both groups (who said that Facebook was only good for posting photos of your kids?) which I am detailing here (I’ve asked for permission to attribute whoever recommended a particular book or reading).

Political Scientists

  • The Craft of Research.(by Booth et al) Shane Gunderson, Cheryl Van Den Handel, and Jay De Sart recommended this book, which I have read and own. This is a book on how to undertake social science research, and it’s one I definitely recommend too.
  • They Say, I Say. Omar Wasow recommended this book, seconded by Jackie Gehring. Erin Ackerman, author of the “Analyze This: Writing in the Social Sciences” chapter of “They Say, I Say” book, mentioned that her chapter Chapter 13 is focused on social sciences’ writing and a few political science examples.
  • Empirical Research in Political Science (by Leanne Powner). I had heard of Leanne’s work before and I *thought* I had a copy of this book, but I think it’s one of the ones I lost at MPSA 2016 (don’t ask). So, I’ve requested an examination copy and will report back once I’ve read it.
  • Writing a Research Paper in Political Science: A Practical Guide to Inquiry, Structure, and Method (by Lisa Baglioni). Recommended by Mirya Holman, Mary Anne Mendoza, and Jay De Sart. I don’t own this book either, but the comments I read were that the book walks the student through the process of writing a research paper quite clearly. I’ve also requested an examination copy, and will report back once I’ve read it
  • Matthew Parent recommended a handout by John Gerring et al (yes, Gerring from case studies! The excerpt is from Gerring and Dino Christenson’s forthcoming book). I love both Gerring and Christenson’s work so I’m always happy to promote it.

I found through Google a few handouts, but these three were the ones that stood out to me, and were also the simplest for me to refer my students for a reading.

Over on The Research Companion Facebook group, I got a few responses.

I then searched my own Mendeley library for examples of good articles I had read that could show my students what analysis looks like, vis-a-vis descriptive text. Here are a few examples I tweeted.

The first one is from a World Development 2014 article by Alison Post and Veronica Herrera on public service delivery in Latin America (focusing on water and wastewater). Here, I wanted the reader to see how Herrera and Post set up a comparison between what the literature says versus what their own analysis shows.

This example comes from Kathryn Harrison’s 2002 Governance article comparing US/Canada/Sweden and dioxins control policy. This paper investigates the role of ideas, interests and institutions on policy change. In this example, I wanted to show how Harrison weighs evidence from each one of the three case studies and evaluates the differential impact that ideas, interests and institutions had on policy evolution.

I then used Josh Cousins and Josh Newell’s article on political-industrial ecology in Los Angeles’ water supply infrastructure to show the reader how Cousins and Newell present descriptive text on Los Angeles and its water supply and then connect it to the literature through analysis.

I used Megan Hatch and Elizabeth Rigby’s article on state-level governments as laboratories of democracy and their study of state-level inequality to show how you can use data (quantitative, in this case) to create an argument and dispel previously held beliefs/preconceived ideas/previous theoretical and empirical findings with their own.

I also used a paper by Melissa Merry on tweeting and the framing of gun policy using the Narrative Policy Framework. In this example I wanted to show how Merry mobilizes her empirical findings to construct a new measure and to explain the theoretical and empirical implications of her findings.

From David Carter and Chris Weible’s study of smoking bans in Colorado in 1977 and 2006, I drew an example where I show how Carter and Weible set up an empirical question (a hypothesis) and then use their data to explain differences between both smoking bans.

Another way in which researchers show they’ve done analysis is in case study selection. In this paper by Rob de Leo and Donnelly, they do a study of policy transfer and the adoption of the Affordable Care Act in Massachusetts. De Leo and Donnelly clearly outline the various reasons why choosing this particular case makes sense.

I am thankful to everyone who provided me with links to books, handouts, etc. And I hope this blog post will be useful to anybody who needs to teach analysis vs. description. I certainly will be using it with my own students and research assistants!

Posted in academia, writing.

Tagged with , , , .

Moving forward and Will H. Moore-ing it forward

These past couple of weeks have been extraordinarily bizarre. On Wednesday April 19th, 2017, I found out that Will H. Moore had taken his own life. This pained me beyond what I imagined it would. I wasn’t Will’s closest friend by any measure. We had talked at several ISA’s, he had always been incredibly sweet and kind to me, and he asked me tough questions, both in person at ISA and online on Twitter, which made me reflect and rethink the way in which I approached my research. But more than anything, I saw Will H. Moore use his privilege to protect younger, up-and-coming, and vulnerable scholars. This made me admire him quite a lot, and I regret that I never actually told Will to his face how much I valued him and appreciated his contributions to political science, international relations, and the global community.

Others have written beautiful tributes to Will which you should read (here’s a sampler on the Duck of Minerva), and I stand in solidarity with all of those who were his students, family, friends, colleagues, coauthors. I was simply yet another member of the IR community he knew, and yet he made me feel like I was somehow a friend of his.

I felt a huge amount of “survivor guilt” this past week, and early this week. I had been enjoying my research, I had been really feeling like my work was moving forward, and then all of a sudden I also felt a huge amount of guilt. I, like many others who were much closer to Will, was mourning. Did I have a right to feel happy about my work and how my research was going? I felt that it was inappropriate. I almost felt guilty about being happy about my work, given that it hadn’t been that long since Will had passed away.

From the moment I found out about Will’s passing, I was unable to work well for a week. I was really discombobulated. I had JUST seen Will, and talked to him, in February of 2017 at the International Studies Association conference. I did some work, but it was limited, and I felt a terrible sense of loss. I was very angry. I have been very angry. Angry at the fact that academia puts an inordinate amount of pressure on professors and students. Angry at the fact that we are incredibly ill-equipped to help those dealing with mental health issues. Angry at the fact that I never got to tell Will how much I admired him. Angry at the fact that a mentor to many, someone who used his privilege to protect others, was no longer with us.

Now that a few days have passed and that I’ve had a chance to process my emotions, I feel that I should do something that I think Will would have liked. I’m going to describe how I plan to live my life moving forward. I had already been an advocate for destigmatization of mental illness, and a champion for a more human, humane academia. Will’s passing reignited my passion for this advocacy. So below, in tweets, is my manifesto for how I plan to Will H. Moore-it forward.

Rest in peace, Will.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with .

Writing synthetic notes of journal articles and book chapters

Earlier this week I shared Dr. Katrina Firth’s modified version of the Cornell Method’s Notes Pages. I used the Cornell Notes method in 2013 and really didn’t click with me, so I simply moved on. Had I discovered Katrina’s modified version earlier I probably would have “clicked” with the methodology much faster. Though her modification is basically shifting columns and text around, it really makes the page a lot more appealing and therefore, it’s really much easier to take notes.

Reading and #AcWri on the plane

Dr. Firth uses this modified Cornell Notes’ template to take notes off of her readings (journal articles, book chapters, etc.) She then uses those notes as prompts to help her write. I have a different but at the same time, kind of similar method. My strategy is different because I don’t take notes in the same format or template she does. HOWEVER. I do take notes off of my readings, and I use them as writing prompts.

The method I use to write my synthetic notes is very similar to a shorter memorandum (I’ve written about how to write extensive and detailed memoranda here, but for synthetic notes, I am looking at less than a page, almost like a rhetorical precis). There’s a number of good resources on how to write critiques of journal articles and book chapters, and how to summarize them, but here is my own method.

  • I start by copying the citation (already formatted) from Mendeley on to an empty page (either electronic or in my Everything Notebook).
  • I then proceed with a basic AIC content extraction (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion). When I extract content using AIC, I don’t overlook the methods nor the data analysis, I simply summarize them, VERY, VERY BRIEFLY. I don’t type the headings “Abstract”, “Introduction”, nor “Conclusion”. I simply write a couple of paragraphs summarizing all the insights I gained from these. Since I’m very analog, I usually highlight those insights, or I scribble on the sides of the printed reading material.
  • I run through the middle of the paper rapidly (this technique is also known as skimming), and if I find something that catches my attention but I don’t have the time to delve in depth, I attach a Post-It adhesive note that protrudes ever so lightly off of the side of the page. That way, I know that I need to go back to that paper.
  • Since I learn better when I transcribe notes, I often copy verbatim my analog (in paper) synthetic notes off of my Everything Notebook into a digital file (usually in Micro$oft Word). I save the file with a brief summary of the article’s title, usually SN which is shorthand for synthetic notes.
  • I save all my synthetic notes into a folder, which is usually different from the folder where I have detailed memorandums. You should note that if you expand your synthetic notes, you may be able to easily create a very detailed memo. I don’t usually overwrite the synthetic note file, but I make a copy and use that document to expand into a memorandum.

Below you can check a synthetic note of an article I recently read on the social construction of water scarcity. This paper, may be deserving of having a memorandum written about it. Nevertheless, I wanted to assume I was doing a broad survey of the literature and therefore, wouldn’t have the time to really delve into the paper.

Below you can see photos of my summarizing (highlighting and scribbling) in each of the AIC headings.


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 125


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 124

Note that I always search the Introduction for the key claims – how does this paper contribute to our understanding of things? How does it shed new light? What kind of counterclaim to the conventional wisdom is the author providing?


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 127

Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 126

I ran the AIC content abstraction, and then quickly skimmed the paper. I found two paragraphs really relevant to the paper, so I highlighted those (see photo below).

Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 123

Since I was not doing an in-depth memorandum for this particular journal article (at the moment), I only highlighted those parts that I found were really compelling. I also added a Post-It adhesive note on the margins of the article (I use arrow-shaped ones) to indicate where I found a quotation that should be included be it in a detailed memorandum or in the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump corresponding to the topic (in this particular case, geopolitics of water).

Note that when I am not writing a full-fledged memorandum, I still look for key quotations to copy to my Excel dump.


I transcribed my highlighting and scribbled notes into a file, which ended up having the following paragraphs:

Mustafa, D. (2007). Social construction of hydropolitics: The geographical scales of water and security in the Indus basin. Geographical Review, 97(4), 484-501

This article links several important interrelated themes: the social construction of water scarcity, the importance of understanding cross-scalar dynamics, issues of water security and the link between water governance and security, beyond the traditional understandings of the securitization of water. Mustafa examines the Indus Basin, in particular conflicts of water supply and sanitation in Karachi and the distribution of irrigation water in Pakistani Punjab. A particularly notable element of this article is that goes beyond traditional discussions of geopolitics and hydropolitics that are usually associated with the transboundary water governance literature, and focuses on the subnational scales. While it would appear to the reader that Mustafa is making yet another case for the water wars literature, instead he specifically focuses on the importance of understanding how water institutions may perform poorly and instead of encouraging peace may exacerbate conflict. Mustafa follows the premise that resource scarcity is socially constructed. He also makes an interesting claim regarding how epistemic communities are more common at subnational scales but they have international ties. Mustafa also challenges traditional engineering-based thinking that focuses on technical solutions to irrigation problems, and instead argues that there is a disconnect between what water users need at the domestic level vis-à-vis water for agriculture (and the construction of mega projects). Mustafa also claims that it is the interconnectedness of water and security what makes it really hard to extricate the role of water in peace building and improving multidimensional views of security. Mustafa draws four main lessons: 1) dissonance between engineering and users’ agendas 2) non-responsive governance threatens human security 3) hydropolitics is basically power politics and 4) water can be a political resource harnessed by politicians to advance their own agenda.

As you can tell, I paraphrased text rather than quote. This is important, because I normally copy and paste quotations with exact page numbers both in the extended, detailed memorandum and in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. For me, synthetic notes don’t have the details I usually would need to write a paper, or a literature review. However, I could very well copy all my synthetic notes on to a single file and create an annotated bibliography.

Hopefully this description will help others write their own synthetic notes. This method works well if you apply it in the mornings and write synthetic notes of your readings, or if you are able to devote your buffer day to catch up on reading.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , , , , .

Writing an annotated bibliography

One of the research products I find most useful for an academic, short of openly-accessible datasets and code for replication is the annotated bibliography. As I have noted before, I consider the annotated bibliography an intermediate step between a bank of rhetorical precis, a bank of synthetic notes, and a fully-developed literature review.

iPod March 2017 038

I consider developing annotated bibliographies an important activity. Thus the annotated bibliography is, for me, an actual scholarly product. It may come from “intermediate” materials, such as a set of rhetorical precis, or a group of synthetic notes, but in the end, the annotated bibliography is a scholarly product in and of itself. It should be readable and provide you with insight that you couldn’t get from the full set of articles or book chapters.

Components of a Research Paper Data

Generally speaking, you can see the annotated bibliography as an organized, systematic dump of all your synthetic notes (or rhetorical precis). Each entry starts with the full article, book or book chapter citation, followed by a short summary of the article. Some authors include the article or book chapter abstract, others don’t. Here are four models for how to create an entry for an annotated bibliography I really liked:

And here are two examples of excellent annotated bibliographies. The first one was created by Dr. Kathryn Furlong and Dr. Christina Cook on municipal water governance in Canada. The second, on community-based water governance, was created by Jingsi Jin with Kelly Sharp under Dr. Crystal Tremblay and Dr. Leila Harris’ supervision.

Literature Road Mapping

One element that links the rhetorical precis and the annotated bibliography is that in the annotation for each entry, you can make a value judgment as to what aspects you find more valuable or important of the article. When I write those judgments, I copy those notes (my synthetic notes) and insert them into my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump for that particular topic.

For example, I am currently writing on timing and sequencing (that is, on how specific events can lead to the creation of specific rules, norms and institutions). I could write an annotated bibliography on the topic (which I am not currently doing as I am writing a full paper, but it would be possible for me to do it as an intermediate step). Previously, I have written on how you can draw several of the most important ideas of a paper by looking at the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion (the AIC method).

The AIC technique DOES NOT substitute for an actual, in-depth read of a paper. But it does provide some basic ideas for an annotated bibliography. You should also be able to write most of the synthetic summary for a paper out of the AIC summary. The AIC also provides you with the foundations of a detailed memorandum.

Following the timing and sequencing example, I am reading Tulia Falleti’s “A Sequential Theory of Decentralization” APSR paper. In this paper, Professor Falleti proposes that the timing and sequencing of decentralization implementation have an impact on how intergovernmental relations result and what the specific outcome in this process will be. While the entire paper is important, I am mostly interested in the timing and sequencing components.

My annotated bibliography entry could very well just include a summary of the main points of Falleti’s paper:

Falleti, Tulia G. “A sequential theory of decentralization: Latin American cases in comparative perspective.” American Political Science Review 99.03 (2005): 327-346.

In this paper, Falleti proposes a sequential theory of decentralization where she defines decentralization as a process, looks at the sequence of events that decentralization processes follow, defines three types of decentralization and takes into account policy feedback effects and the territorial interests of bargaining actors. Falleti applies her analysis to four Latin American countries. Falleti shows that decentralization doesn’t necessary increase the power of governors and mayors, but instead this power is dependent on the sequence of decentralization reforms and the timing of these.

Normally, for papers I am reading at the overview/meso level, I would write a summary that is based on the results of AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion). However, since I find this article by Tulia Falleti quite important, I will write a detailed memorandum, and I will drop my highlights and scribbles on the margins into my Excel dump (Conceptual Synthesis).

As I have written before, I triage the full set of readings I plan to do, and I am strategic, focusing in more depth on those articles, books and book chapters that I know could very well provide me with key insights for a literature review. Being this strategic isn’t all that relevant if one is doing a very broad annotated bibliography. That’s why doing a citation tracing process around anchor authors is important. You need to make sure that you do in-depth readings when those are written by the key authors that you need to read for your literature review.

Hopefully sharing my processes will help people write their annotated bibliographies and their literature reviews!

Posted in academia, writing.

Tagged with , , .