Senior Literature Review Fall 2017

Project Presentations


Peter, Octave, and Will described their literature review projects and their reading lists. Everyone got some good suggestions from the group.

After they did their part, I gave a short presentation on citation styles.

How Much of You Goes into a Literature Review?

Octave asked a good question about what the précis should be like. Are they supposed to be straight summaries or should they evaluate the works under discussion?

I asked the seminar members what sort of literature review they would like to read. (The précis are going to be compiled into the literature review at the end.) After all, we write for readers. What do the people we are writing for want?

What we came up with was a mixture of the two elements Octave mentioned. On the one hand, we thought that a literature review really should tell the reader in a fairly neutral way what the item being review says. On the other hand, we thought they would be boring to read and to write if that is all they involved.

We looked back on the literature reviews that we read; we liked the ones that established argumentative links between different readings and we were not crazy about the ones that were just summaries. I put one of our literature reviews on Sakai because it was unusually good about making the linkages in one part and then clearly turned less interesting when it started merely describing chapters in a book.

Will and Octave both emphasized the importance of explaining the motivation for philosophical positions. Will recalled that from the literature review he read and Octave remarked that this was a good feature of Will’s presentation of his own project.


I printed out the example pages from the Chicago Manual of Style’s Citation Quick Guide. There are lots of citation guides and they are all fine; what is most important is that you use one that fits the academic subject matter and that you apply it consistently. Chicago’s styles are very widely used in academic writing and the manual is freely available online through our library. That’s why I recommend it.

There are basically two kinds of citation styles.

  1. Author-date styles put references in the text (Author, 2017).
  2. Notes styles put references in footnotes or endnotes. The first reference to a given work gets a complete citation.1 The second reference to that work has a shortened citation.2

Author-date styles are most often used in the sciences while notes styles are used in the humanities. But it is common to use author-date styles in some subfields of philosophy, such as the one Will is working in. Use the one that works best and seems to fit your material.

Both systems employ lists of full citations in alphabetical order at the end of the main work: Chicago calls these “bibliographies” for notes styles and “reference lists” for author-date styles. The format of bibliographies and reference lists is slightly different. Plus, as an added bonus, notes styles use two different complete citation formats: one for the complete citations in the notes and a different one for citations in the bibliography. Whee! (As Peter noted, the rule of thumb is commas for notes, periods for bibliographies. It won’t get you all the way there, but it’s pretty close.)

These styles are a pain for humans to produce accurately. Fortunately, we have software to do it for us. Microsoft Word has a pretty good bibliography system. You put the information about your readings into its database and it will format your citations and bibliography for you.

Word will do Chicago author-date styles but not notes styles. This is probably good enough for a bibliography: just use it to make a bibliography and move the year to the end for each item. (Hat tip to Peter for noticing that.)

If you want the full luxury of pushing a button and watching a bibliography magically appear in just the format you want, Zotero or Mendeley are excellent options.

The one thing I have to warn you about is that you can’t just get bibliographic information off the web. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it’s not. And even when it is OK, it usually includes fields that you don’t really want. So you usually have to enter the details into the database by hand or, at least, check it.

Some fields that you can usually leave out:

  1. DOI, URL, or anything that a machine would use to find a reading is usually pretty ugly in a printed bibliography and not terribly useful to a human who would have to transcribe an otherwise meaningless string of characters. (These will be essential when documents are primarily electronic, but for now, they’re not.)

  2. Issue numbers. Many journals just want volume numbers, not the issue inside the volume. I guess they think it’s not necessary and they’re probably right.

  3. Months of publication. Same story: as long as you know the year a journal was published, you can find what you want pretty easily.

  4. The press that published the journal. Academic journals switch between presses with some frequency, particularly as university presses have been consolidating. So this is really inessential information. You just need the journal title.

  5. Information about how you accessed a published work. This is relevant only to material that is only electronic. Even if you looked up a book electronically, the citation to the paper book should be sufficient. (Assuming the electronic version has the same pages as the paper one.)

  6. All the cities where a press is located. Just list the first one. (You can find this information on the first page after the title page.)

Generally speaking, you should try to make your bibliography look like the ones in the literature you are reading. If it does, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t, there should be a good reason why.

  1. Ann Author, “Citation Styles for Fun and Profit,” Pedant’s Monthly 10 (2017): 47.

  2. Author, “Citation Styles for Fun and Profit,” 154.