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I plan to write a structured literature review in a relatively new field in which only a few peer reviewed articles already exist.

How would you approach this? Find articles in adjacent topics and clearly underline the existing gap in research OR rather lower the quality of the papers I include (i.e. journal ranks).

I am very new to this type of work, love the topic, see the practical (and academic need), but feel that the structure literature review is quite a hard "approach" for new fields.

Thank you - curious to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Here is an approach I have found works, but I'm sure different things will work well for different people (I assumed in writing this that you are not an expert in the field, but rereading the question it's not clear to me if this was a good assumption, sorry if that is the case):

  1. Make sure you have a lot of your favorite form of caffeine on hand.
  2. Identify two or three highly cited review articles in the field. Skim them to get an overview; mark the sections to come back to later that are relevant for your survey.
  3. Start a database of reference by looking at what was cited in the review papers, for example using endnote. Go to those papers. Add the the references they cited. Repeat until it seems like you are getting the same set of references.
  4. Read the abstracts of the papers in your database. Make some kind of not about whether they seem interesting or not (don't get rid of the uninteresting ones because you might find later that it really was interesting once you get to understand the field better, but also make the uninteresting ones less visible so you don't waste time wading through them). For ones that look interesting, look at the figures (assuming this is a field where papers have figures). If it still looks interesting, try to summarize the main result in one or two sentences and add it to a table.
  5. Look at the conference proceedings from a few recent conferences in that field to see what topics people are working on.
  6. As you read papers, you'll start noticing some names and groups pop up a lot. Try to contact these people and explain what you are doing and ask if they'd be willing to chat with you for a half hour about the field. Many won't respond, but if you can spend half an hour on the phone with an expert (or more than one expert), you will learn a lot in a short amount of time about what they find interesting, what the trends are, and thoughts / topics that are not written down anywhere. Also, ask them if they have any contacts they'd be willing to give you who you can follow up with for more information.
  7. One note-taking strategy I personally like is to try to draw a web on a piece of paper the major themes in my search, with links to major papers/ideas, and show how these different papers and ideas relate to each other. This map gets redrawn many times as I learn more and change my mind about how the information is logically organized.

As to whether to "highlight gaps" or "lower your quality standards" -- I would say you should include everything relevant to understanding the field. I would not spend time on papers that were tangentially relevant or of questionable quality (but ideally your judgment of quality should be based on the content of the paper, not the journal it was published in). If there are major gaps in the field, that should be reflected in your review.

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  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrew. Much appreciated! Although your suggested process sounds great, I am still worried slightly about the suggested method of a systematic literature review (by Tranfield et. al.). Simply put, this method suggests to boil down a large(r) body of existing literature, data extraction, data synthesis etc. While your approach will greatly help me to get into the field, I still won't succeed much if this specific research fields has nearly no dedicated papers (to boil down). Does that impact your thinking?
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 17:23
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In my field, following the PRISMA guidelines is a virtual requirement for systematic reviews. Given the dearth of articles in the field, you may be interested in a "scoping review" where, basically, you attempt to collect all related articles and identify gaps. Needless to say, you should look at the already-published review articles in the target journal and mimic/iterate on their format.

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