How to Write a Literature Review

How to write a literature review: rules and tips

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a short summary and description of information on a certain topic found in books and journals. At the university, students come across two basic kinds of literature reviews: 1. separate assignment in a course, usually as a part of training to acquire research skills; 2. part of an introduction to thesis, research paper or other serious work. As a rule, a literature review is a list of authors and their works, which have studied problems previously, and directly or indirectly relate to the subject of the study.

In whatever branch of science you are working, sooner or later you will have to face writing a review of scientific literature. The need for this work is explained by the constantly growing number of new scientific developments and research. Given the speed and volume of the appearance of new data, scientists simply can not physically study each new article in their own and related fields. In addition to knowledge and diligence, it takes considerable experience to write a literature review. The first two qualities are entirely on your conscience, and gaining experience requires practice. We will share with you 10 + 1 advice synthesized from the experience of leading scientists. After reading this article, you will know how to write a good and informative literature review.

1: Clearly define the topic of literature review and its audience

How to choose a good topic for writing literature review? Any area has an unthinkable number of interesting problems for research. Here are some tips for choosing a topic:

  • The topic should be interesting to you personally. Ideally, if you can immediately remember the last ten publications, which it would be appropriate to critically analyze.
  • The topic should be relevant. This will certainly provide you with more material, and your review will receive attention of a wide range of readers.
  • The review should consider clearly identified problem. There is no point in sorting out this or that area “in general”, review a narrow topic.
  • Identify your target audience. Specialists in what field will read your review, where are you going to write it? Will the topic be interesting only for your teacher or students, too? Knowing the level of your reader, you will easily determine the level of detail of the consideration of a particular issue.

2: Literature search

The probability that you will write a good review increases if you have already done this (even if on a different topic). In this case, you can use the previous publication as the basis on which you can “string” new data. Here are some tips for finding information:

  • Use more than one search engine of scientific literature. This way, you will not miss any truly worthwhile publication for review. About 99% of all scientific research is carried out through these systems: DBLP, Google Scholar, JSTOR Search, ISI Proceedings, Web of Science, Medline, Scopus.
  • Keep all the articles in one folder. Organizers (Endnote, Mendeley) will help you to find the right source quickly. Always duplicate information on several independent devices.
  • In advance define criteria for suitable articles (for example, impact factors of logs, combinations of keywords, etc.). These criteria should allow you to quickly select only what can potentially be used for literature review.
  • Review not only experimental articles on the topic, but also previous reviews – this will allow you not to waste time describing what has already been described, and will also provide food for thought. It is desirable to refer to such reviews, placing emphasis on the new data that has appeared.
  • Pay attention to who and where quoted the latest reviews. Look at how their new data supplement or refute published earlier.

3: Field notes

If you have just started to write a literature review and read selected articles for the first time, it is absolutely necessary to remember new information, impressions from the read, new thoughts and associations. It is desirable to immediately write all this down, so it will be easier to link new thoughts with the available results and your personal ideas later. You can write directly on the margins or paste stickknots (if you use printouts of articles), or make notes directly on a computer or tablet: almost all modern program-catalogers of the electronic library allow you to leave notes. Write out the quotes you plan to refer to in the review. When writing a draft, try to rephrase these quotes in your own words.

It is very important to be careful and write out the references already at this stage, in order to avoid further losing time an attempt to remember where to find the data. Thus, for the time that you read the selected literature, a draft of the literature review will appear by itself. Of course, this draft will have to be rewritten many times, restructured and rephrased in order to get a complete text with intelligible logic and sharp arguments. Do not let this frighten you. Just start taking notes, even if you do not have any system, as you progress, the survey plan will gradually be drawn, and the further, the clearer it will be.

4: Determine the type of literature review

If make notes while reading the literature, at the end of this process you have an approximate volume of the future literature review. This is probably the most appropriate time to decide where to go. There are two types of overview genre:

  • mini-size review (mostly focused on publications of recent years, with a limited number of words and citations. Mini-review does not mean inferiority –it is rather a laconic and capacious article, a concentrate of modern ideas, attracting the attention of busy readers with its small volume. Mini literature reviews are usually used as a part of a longer work, like thesis. The disadvantage of mini-reviews is that sometimes some problems are presented in a simplified form due to volume limitations.)
  • full-size review (you can bring more data and can dwell on those details that you consider important or interesting. Such reviews are usually a separate assignment in different subjects.)

Also, reviews can be classified as:

  • descriptive (focus on the methodology, search and interpretation of each study – this is a conscientious summary of current data. The authors of the same conceptual reviews put forward new ideas and concepts stemming from the whole array of published materials.)
  • conceptual (writing a good conceptual review requires deep knowledge in the field.)

Descriptive reviews, as a rule, take much less time and energy.

5: Consider the problem from different angles

Regardless of which review you plan to write, focus on a specific issue. However, in the analysis it is useful to use data from neighboring areas. For example, if you write a literature review in immunology, include also the materials on epidemiologists, cytologists and biochemists. Consideration of the mechanisms of this or that problem at different levels – from molecules to populations – will allow you to present the material more clearly and broadly. Such work will be of interest to a much larger number of readers.

6: Be critical and consistent

A good overview is not only a generalization of literature, but also a critical analysis that helps to identify methodological problems and point to gaps in research. After reading your review, the smart reader should get an idea of ​​the following:

  • What are the main achievements in the described area;
  • What are the main contentious issues of the problem;
  • What are the main scientific issues and prospects for their solution.

In addition to critical thinking, a literature review requires a good writing skills and grammar. Do not forget to ask colleagues to read the final version before publication.

7: Think structurally

A good overview is relevant, systematic, easy to read, well structured and critical. The reviews rarely use the structure of experimental articles (introduction, methods, results, discussion). Instead, the author chooses his own logic of the narrative each time, which can be dictated by the topic of the review itself. Although there is no single format, in general, the work should be divided into several logical sections:

  • short introduction that touches on the problem under consideration;
  • body of the review is usually divided into blocks, has headings/subheadings. Here the author reviews and evaluates existing knowledge on the problem. Here you note most important subtopics, trends and findings about which scientists (authors) agree or disagree. If the review is a part of your thesis or research paper, its main purpose is to give an argument that justifies your proposed research. Therefore, you need to discuss only that particular research which directly leads to your thesis problem;
  • conclusion that summarizes the main points of the review and repeats the main ideas.

How to organize the flow of the main text in your review, so that your reader is not lost in it and understand the meaning of what is written? To do this, it is useful to bring conceptual diagrams that allow you to keep the logic of the narrative before your eyes. Well-executed illustrations make it possible to understand the basic idea even without a detailed reading.

8: Consider feedback from reviewers

When writing a professional literature review, consider feedback from reviewers. Literature reviews are usually peer reviewed as rigorously as research articles. As a rule, taking into account the opinions of your reviewers significantly improves the original version of the review. Having carefully read the review, the reviewers will snap a fresh look at those inaccuracies, inconsistencies or undisclosed problems that you have not noticed. By the way, carefully read through the entire review just before sending it – the absence of typos and confusing sentences will allow reviewers (teacher) to focus attention on the essence of the article, and not on style or mistakes.

Reviewers’ advice is very important, so you should try to get reviews from specialists from different fields of science. On the one hand, this can lead to conflicting views on the merits of the review and inconsistent tips for improving the text. On the other hand, this situation is better than the lack of feedback at all. A variety of comments will help you determine what the opinions of experts converge, and where there are controversial points.

9: Include your own research in the review, but be objective

Typically, the review authors achieve success in the described field and publish experimental works on the topic themselves. This can create a conflict of interest – it is difficult to judge objectively about your own work. Scientists can somewhat overestimate what they did themselves. And, nevertheless, do not be too modest – if you are asked to write a review, this already means that your work is worth something. Try to objectively correlate your data with the data of colleagues. In reviews written by several authors, objectivity is achieved easier, as each co-author edits the text and has the opportunity to take a more realistic look at the achievements of colleagues.

10: Use fresh data, but do not forget about the classics

Given the rapid growth in the number of scientific papers, reviews of literature in many areas quickly become obsolete and lose relevance. However, do not be afraid of it – a really good analysis will be relevant for quite a long time. Each experimental article covers only a narrow area of ​​the broad front of science. Generalization, considering and showing the general vector of development of one direction is the main task of the review.

11: Practice

It’s impossible to become an accomplished writer by reading tips on how to become a writer. It is impossible to become an artist by watching the drawing course on TV. It is impossible to write a good literature review without practice. While you are just a student or a young scientist, and scientific journals do not spoil you with “orders” for reviews, write them yourself. If you can write a review of literature that you think reflects the latest trends in your industry at a decent scientific level – try it.