Academic literature review using a Zettelkasten
As a PhD student, a important part of my job is to write and maintain literature reviews about my topics of interest. By literature review, I don't mean simple literature notes on one book or article, but summarize what the existing academic literature has to say on one topic.
My problem is: where and how should I write those notes? By their very own nature (summarize ideas on a specific topic), literature reviews look like zettels, however, compared to my other notes, they tend to be longer and contain more references (obviously).
Thus, I was wondering if any of you had specific workflows and ideas on how to use a Zettelkasten to write and maintain literature reviews more effectively.
Thank you for your help!
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It sounds like your "literature reviews" are what I call "articles", in terms of length and complexity of writing. If so, you are definitely beyond what I would normally put onto one Zettel (one idea, simply stated, etc.).
Most of my Zettels are one or two paragraphs, easily viewable on one screen. Even with title, references, tags, and other macro data, mine are no more than 200-300 words. I do have some personal memory Zettels that are a bit longer, up to about 400 words, but most are in the lower range. Maybe one (or possibly a couple) of your Zettels would distill what you think about one book that you have read.
But it sounds like your reviews are articles of several thousand words or more. I treat those as a separate writing project, using Scrivener to combine a number of Zettels, re-arrange and expand on the logic or "argument", edit, etc. Scrivener is a popular and capable writing tool that allows export to a variety of document formats. I often export to Pages or Word, or occasionally PDF if I don't need any advanced formatting capabilities (Scrivener is quite capable but doesn't contain all the advanced formatting like text boxes, etc.).
When I've done, I store the finished product somewhere on my hard drive (wherever it makes sense), then copy the file location (Cmd-alt-C) and store that on one of my Zettels (e.g., on a structure note, if you have one for that series of Zettels). Here is an example of one of my file references:
To get the file reference to work properly in The Archive, you have to add "file://" in front of your pasted file path and you have to replace any spaces in your file path with "%20" (in both cases, without the quotes).
The basic zettel format will work nicely for building a literature review. You shouldn't need any sort of special note style for this. Each zettel contains an idea or concept with references that supports that idea or concept. When you're putting together your actual review, it's just a matter of pulling a collection of zettel that contain the ideas you're focusing on in your review and organizing those thoughts into your article.
I imagine that the only difference between the average zettel and one that you're planning to use for a literature review is that the literature review zettel might have more references. I don't agree that literature review notes will always be longer than typical zettel. Remember that a zettel should ideally contain one concept or idea. If your multiple references all say the same thing, then your zettel will just contain those references listed out. If multiple references say different things, they will likely need to be split into multiple different zettel. If the difference between these references is important, then you can elucidate that difference in yet another zettel.
Thanks this is exactly what I was wondering.
@tantrig I don't see any problem with having your literature reviews sit within the zettelkasten. That is what I'd do. I'd also interconnect the reviews with each other and with my smaller notes. Then I'd create a structure note that links to all the literature reviews.
You have notes. You then have structure notes, which would be like a bullet point list linking to a bunch of other notes. I'd just look at literature reviews like structure notes that are more detailed and have been expanded upon.
One of the key ideas within the zettelkasten is the reformulation/summarization of texts in order to capture ideas while reducing size. Literature reviews are still doing that, just in a more expanded version. It would be impractical for a physical zettelkasten, but remember it is digital now, so having long literature review notes should be no issue.
I bet @jeannelking would have something useful to say on this!
I think what you call reviews are normal notes in my Zettelkasten for me. There is no problem with those notes being longer. And there is no problem dividing one review into different individual notes. Imagine keeping the review on physical paper. If the paper is full you would break a sweat while pulling up a new one.
I am a Zettler
Maybe this is too much information.
@ctietze introduced me to the concept of 'Hub' notes. These are structure notes that focus on a theme of interest. A meta-layer loosely organized as an entry point into a more detailed understanding. They also provide a place to create new zettel. They contain links to individual zettel that are atomic ideas and other structure notes of books, articles, papers, classes, videos, etc.
Here is a sample of mine - the "Haiku Hub." It has literary links, and these links lead to books I've processed into structure notes and then more in-depth to atomic ideas captured from the reading. I think this is what you are looking for in what you call a - "literature review... [summarizing] what the existing academic literature has to say on one topic." The topic would be the "Hub Note." It would have atomic zettel and other structure notes developed from readings. The problem a beginner has is that they don't have a critical mass of zettel to visualize any kind of natural holistic structure. Hence, the advice to just get started and let the forms emerge as the mass of zettel grows and eventually goes supernova.
I do start with a link on a hub zettel or in one of its linked sub hub notes, but that is just a placeholder. I place my focus on the atomic zettel and let the structure evolve while the processing occurs and even weeks, months later.
Here is the list of all my current hubs. These expose how I've constructed my zettelkasten. All of my zettel link through these 11 hubs. A zettel that doesn't fit one of these hubs starts a new hub because it represents a new area of interest. For example, if I was to write a zettel on knitting and its focus was the meditative quality of knitting, it would go into the Zen Hub or the Waking Up Hub if the zettel focuses on the effect of needle size on loop and pattern quality, I'd have to start a new Knitting Hub. The list below shows top-level domains that surfaced naturally after many individual zettel and time lots of time and thought.
All this categorization and structure is still is not my focus—just a little side thing. I try and keep my sights on atomic zettel. From my experience, this focus on the small, individual zettel lets this sort of categorization develop holistically.
My peak cognition is behind me. One day I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.
Ha! Thanks, @Nick! ;^D
Hi @tantrig, fellow PhD student here, so I can absolutely relate to that lit review question! Out of curiosity, how far along are you in your program? Because I think there are different strategies for Zettelkasten depending on where you are.
I'm in year two of my program, and I am thanking my lucky stars that I stumbled upon Zettelkasten right before the fall semester started. Because I've still got time before really diving into the lit reviews required for my dissertation, I'm creating my lit review as I go along over the next year. Here's what I mean:
So that's me with a bit of time, using my Zettelkasten with an eye specifically towards my essays and dissertation. If I haven't overwhelmed you with all this information, feel free to DM me should you ever want to talk Zettelkasten and PhD journeys. I'd be happy to connect.
How do your literatur review notes look like? (Screenshot would be nice)
I am a Zettler