5 tips for writing a literature review

In this post, winner of the ‘Materials Science & Technology Literature Review Prize’ in Materials Science and Technology shares tips for writing a literature review.

From Diptak Bhattacharya, researcher

5 Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Writing a literature review paper offers a unique opportunity to critically analyze and organize current literature. If you’re a graduate student, this will help you understand your field before you start writing your own research.

Here are some suggestions for how to turn this journey into a grand adventure.

Simplify the literature – present the broad picture to the reader

There is a vast array of scientific literature available and it sometimes feels overwhelming to study it systematically.

As an author of a review paper, present the literature in an organized way so that your review acts as a handy ‘guidebook’ of the literature.

Developing schematic maps and classifications can help the reader visualize the chronology of developments in a field, and also locate particular papers of interest.

Develop an interesting storyline to engage the reader

A review paper should have a strong plot. Introduce the topic using an interesting problem statement that plants a seed of suspense in the reader’s mind. Then, take the reader on a journey that slowly unfolds the origin of the stated problem.

Always explain the theory right from the basics. Illustrate concepts through graphics alongside text.

Schematic charts and diagrams help demonstrate theories that are complicated to interpret from texts alone, therefore you can use them to keep the reader engaged and help them grasp the theory.

Critically analyze the literature

As a scientific person, it is imperative to assimilate data from different research, and understand its broader implications.

Often, you discover hidden scientific trails only through comparing and contrasting research. These trends are not obvious from any stand-alone investigation.

An effective literature review paper identifies and interprets these subtle trends and builds ideas and hypotheses for future research in the field.

Be confident to highlight gaps in the literature

A literature review is not merely an exercise to summarize published research, because every research is different and the findings and interpretations may vary.

Rather, a review paper is an excellent place to identify the gaps or inconsistencies in the literature.

Therefore, you should aim to write a review that leaves a clear impression of what is ‘well understood’, and what still remains a ‘mystery’ to be solved.

Want more tips on writing a scientific literature review? Read posts from last year’s winner Syed Ghazi Sarwat, and runner-up Angus Crake.

Plus, view our handy infographic.

5 Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Diptak Bhattacharya is currently undertaking his PhD at the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center in Colorado School of Mines, USA. His PhD research focuses on developing appropriate joining strategies for successfully implementing 3rd Gen.

advanced steels in lightweight automotive manufacturing. Before his PhD, Diptak worked as a product technologist in the Flat Product Technology Group of Tata Steel Limited, India. He is a core metallurgist, and hopes to actively contribute to industries through his research.

Follow his research here.

Further reading

  • Writing a review article
  • How do you write a prize-winning literature review?
  • Tips for writing a literature review

Literature Review Tips

  • What is a literature review?
  • “A literature review is both a summary and explanation of the complete and current state of knowledge on a limited topic as found in academic books and journal articles. There are two kinds of literature reviews you might write at university: one that students are asked to write as a stand-alone assignment in a course, often as part of their training in the research processes in their field, and the other that is written as part of an introduction to, or preparation for, a longer work, usually a thesis or research report”
  • Source: University of Guelph Library – Writing a Literature Review
  • You may be asked to write a stand alone literature review on a given topic, or you may be required to conduct a literature review as part of a larger piece of research, such thesis or dissertation.
  • The purpose of a literature review is to:
  1. Learn about a topic in preparation for a large research project.
  2. Review writings by other researchers on a given topic
  3. Update a previous literature review

What to include

You will want to do a broad survey of the existing literature on your topic. This will include scholarly research articles, books, theses, dissertations. When you are searching in library databases, be sure to use the scholarly journal/research article/peer reviewed limiters to get appropriate results.

As stated on the SFU Academic Writing: What is a Literature Review page:

“Don’t provide a lot of detail about the procedures used in your sources. Don’t mention every study conducted on the topic. Include only the ones that are most relevant for the purpose and scope of your review”

5 Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Steps for writing a literature review

The University of Guelph Library has prepared a helpful list of nine steps to writing a literature review.

1. Find a Working Topic

Look at your specific area of study. Think about what interests you, and what is fertile ground for study. Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the field.

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2. Review the Literature

  • Using keywords, search a computer database. It is best to use at least two databases relevant to your discipline
  • Remember that the reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to valuable papers
  • Make certain that you also include any studies contrary to your point of view

3. Focus Your Topic Narrowly and Select Papers Accordingly

Consider the following:

  • What interests you?
  • What interests others?
  • What time span of research will you consider?

Choose an area of research that is due for a review.

4. Read the Selected Articles Thoroughly and Evaluate Them

  • What assumptions do most/some researchers seem to be making?
  • What methodologies do they use? what testing procedures, subjects, material tested?
  • Evaluate and synthesize the research findings and conclusions drawn
  • Note experts in the field: names/labs that are frequently referenced
  • Note conflicting theories, results, methodologies
  • Watch for popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time

5. Organize the Selected Papers By Looking For Patterns and By Developing Subtopics

Note things such as:

  • Findings that are common/contested
  • Two or three important trends in the research
  • The most influential theories

6. Develop a Working Thesis

Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been done on your subject.

Guidelines for writing a literature review

“How to” Guideline series is coordinated by Helen Mongan-Rallis of the Education Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to improve these guidelines please me at e-mail [email protected]

by Helen Mongan-Rallis. Last updated: April 19, 2018 [Note: For these guidelines, in some sections I have quoted directly some of the the steps from: Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.]

What is a literature review?

A literature review is not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. While a summary of the what you have read is contained within the literature review, it goes well beyond merely summarizing professional literature.

It focuses on a specific topic of interest to you and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work.

It may be written as a stand-alone paper or to provide a theoretical framework and rationale for a research study (such as a thesis or dissertation).

Step-by-step guide

These guidelines are adapted primarily from Galvan (2006). Galvan outlines a very clear, step-by-step approach that is very useful to use as you write your review.

I have integrated some other tips within this guide, particularly in suggesting different technology tools that you might want to consider in helping you organize your review. In the sections from Step 6-9 what I have included is the outline of those steps exactly as described by Galvan.

I also provide links at the end of this guide to resources that you should use in order to search the literature and as you write your review.

In addition to using the step-by-step guide that I have provided below, I also recommend that you (a) locate examples of literature reviews in your field of study and skim over these to get a feel for what a literature review is and how these are written (I have also provided links to a couple of examples at the end of these guidelines (b) read over other guides to writing literature reviews so that you see different perspectives and approaches: Some examples are:

Step 1: Review APA guidelines

Read through the links provided below on APA guidelines so that you become familiar with the common core elements of how to write in APA style: in particular, pay attention to general document guidelines (e.g. font, margins, spacing), title page, abstract, body, text citations, quotations.

Step 2: Decide on a topic

It will help you considerably if your topic for your literature review is the one on which you intend to do your final M.Ed. project, or is in some way related to the topic of your final project. However, you may pick any scholarly topic.

Step 3: Identify the literature that you will review:

  1. Familiarize yourself with online databases (see UMD library resource links below for help with this), identifying relevant databases in your field of study.

The Literature Review | A Complete Step-by-Step Guide

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analyzing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are five main steps in the process of writing a literature review:

  1. Search for relevant literature
  2. Evaluate sources
  3. Identify themes, debates and gaps
  4. Outline the structure
  5. Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources – it analyzes, synthesizes, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Why write a literature review?

When you write a thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps.

Step 1: Search for relevant literature

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic.

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions.

Research Guides: Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: 5. The Literature Review

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish.

Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies.

Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally that become part of the lore of field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as “true” even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews.

Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Types of Literature Reviews

Argumentative Review
This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint.

Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse.

However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review
Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated.

The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication.

This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review

Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish

Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. “The literature” seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible when completing this gargantuan task.

Sonja Foss and William Walters* describe an efficient and effective way of writing a literature review. Their system provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a dissertation, an M.A. thesis, or an article or book in any field of study.

Below is a  summary of the steps they outline as well as a step-by-step method for writing a literature review.

Step One: Decide on your areas of research:

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas. A literature review I am currently working on, for example, explores barriers to higher education for undocumented students.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated sessions.

  • Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:
  • Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:
  • 1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  • 2. Definitions of terms
  • 3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  • 4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  • 5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating
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When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature:

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile.

If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories.

When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema:

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them.

Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense.

Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper.

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review:

Ashford Writing Center

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources that provides an overview of a particular topic. Literature reviews are a collection of the most relevant and significant publications regarding that topic in order to provide a comprehensive look at what has been said on the topic and by whom. The basic components of a literature review include:

  • a description of the publication;
  • a summary of the publication’s main points;
  • a discussion of gaps in research;
  • an evaluation of the publication’s contribution to the topic.

What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography is a list of your references with a summary of the content and the publication’s relationship to your research question. A literature review is an overview of the topic, an explanation of how publications differ from one another, and an examination of how each publication contributes to the discussion and understanding of the topic.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to provide a review of writings on the given topic in order to establish the reviewer’s own position in the existing field of scholarship on that topic.

A literature review provides a reader with a comprehensive look at previous discussions prior to the one the reviewer will be making in his/her own research paper, thesis, or dissertation.

In short, a literature review shows readers where the reviewer is entering the academic conversation on a particular topic in the context of existing scholarship.

How do I create a literature review?

The length and depth of your literature review depends on the length of your project. If you are writing a 10-page argument paper, you may have room to include 5-6 sources to review, because you will also be establishing your argument as well, but there’s no hard equation for how many or how much. Use your judgment and most importantly, consult your instructor about expectations.

Here is a step-by-step approach to drafting your literature review:

  1. If you are writing an argument paper, create a thesis statement with a clear position. If you are evaluating scientific theories, develop a hypothesis to examine. If you are providing a self-contained review of writings on a topic, state your project’s purpose.

    At the beginning of any paper, define your paper’s purpose so that the literature review will be anchored to a specific point of view.

  2. Review a number of texts that most closely pertain to your topic and position, and are written by relevant scholars.

    Understand who the top voices are in your topic’s academic field, and be sure to include the most pertinent publications by those scholars.

  3. As you summarize each publication, provide the context for that publication’s importance by tying its main points to your thesis, hypothesis, or project statement.

    How does it relate? Establish its relevance to the discussion.

  4. Think of your literature review as a development of an argument—what were the earliest ideas on the topic and how did they grow and evolve in the academic conversation of these publications? First things first.

  5. As you are writing the literature review you will mention the author names and the publication years in your text, but you will still need to compile comprehensive citations for each entry at the end of your review. Follow APA, MLA, or Chicago style guidelines, as your course requires.

View a Sample

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