Literature Review – a guide for beginners

Hi all, welcome back to scienceIQ! I am writing a post after a long time, but I will keep posting as and when possible. So, stay tuned. Today we will discuss Literature Review. Yes, it is the most disliked process in conducting research, and it is the first challenge that we all have to face before starting our research project. We know that literature review is MANDATORY for any proposal submission. So, we cannot escape from writing pages and pages of literature review. In this post, we will see why we should do a literature review and few tips for doing it well.  

Benefits of a Literature Review:

I know that it is a daunting work, especially for beginners, but I cannot emphasize enough on the importance of a thorough literature review. Firstly, literature review helps you to understand the intricacies of your topic: what has been done, what has not been done, which method is evidence-based, which methods/techniques do not have any evidence, lacunae in literature, how a method/treatment can be simplified or improved, what is the need of the study, and how can you approach a problem in a novel and feasible way. You can never get the answers to these questions until you have reviewed the literature thoroughly. It not only gives you the knowledge about your topic but also makes you confident in it. Secondly, it will provide a scientific basis for your study. Also, it will prevent you from unnecessary duplication of the existing studies.

Tips for conducting a literature search:

Here are a few tips that will simplify your literature search:

  1. Use keywords and set an alert for your keywords in different databases: you will get an email on the latest articles published on your topic, so you are never missing any relevant article.
  2. Read the papers superficially before downloading an article, so that you have some idea about articles stored in your library.
  3. Categorize in separate folders – It is one of the lifesaving steps in a literature review. As you must be knowing that literature review is not only done at the beginning of your proposal, but you will have to keep reviewing articles throughout your study period, so please categorize the articles into separate folders. Be as specific as possible in creating folders for different sets of articles. E.g., articles on the prevalence of the problem, articles on one-type of intervention, articles on latest techniques, feasibility articles, systematic reviews, so and so forth. This tip will also help in writing the literature review better.
  4. Use tables to summarize the articles when it gets too overwhelming to deal with the humongous amount of published articles.
  5. Never forget to screen the reference lists of the relevant articles for finding more articles on your topic.

Tips for writing a literature review:

Here are a few easy tips for structuring your literature review:

  1. The first tip for writing a review is to start broad. Briefly explain the topic to the readers, and what is interesting about it. Introduce relevant terms and definitions.
  2. Write about the history of the topic, i.e., what has been done previously and identify gaps in the literature.
  3. Explain about your hypothesis and how it will help in addressing the gaps in the literature.
  4. Justify your theoretical framework and your approach for solving the research problem.
  5. Critically appraise the literature. Do not summarize the existing literature; instead, be critical and provide deeper insights into the topic. E.g. write about conflicting findings, or the methodologies used, uniqueness of the studies or its limitations.
  6. Do not forget to write in a logical flow. When we are writing details on a particular topic, then we are likely to get deviated but maintain a logical flow even if you have to skip few ‘not-so-important’ studies.
  7. Don’t be boring and monotonous. I know it is difficult, but it will come with practice. I have not achieved it yet 😛
  8. Keep reading published literature reviews. It will help you understand the writing pattern and will improve your writing skills.
  9. Do not plagiarize; do not let it become your habit.
  10. Ask your friends to read your draft and see if they can understand it.
  11. Proofread.

Here are a few other references on literature review:

  1. Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review by Marco Pautasso (Pautasso M (2013) Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review. PLoS Comput Biol 9(7): e1003149. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003149)
  2. Davies, W. M., Beaumont, T. J. Design and layout: Pesina, J.  The University of Melbourne

That was it. Even if you have completed your review, you can use a few tips to improve it further. Happy writing! 


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