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How to write a literature review in the sciences

 How to write a literature review in the sciences
Abstract. A literature review is an essential component in scientific writing and thus plays a role in the process of scientific research. This paper introduces the literature review, discusses its purpose and explores the mechanics of actually writing a literature review.

Introduction: Many students who are new to scientific writing may be unfamiliar with the role of the literature review in science. A literature review is both a type of writing and a necessary component of scientific research. As a form of writing, a literature review is a carefully crafted examination of a literature towards the answering of a specific research question. A "literature" is a collection of published research relevant to the research question. A literature review can stand on its own, eg. Reviews in Geophysics is an example of a journal that only publishes literature review papers, or it can compose a section of a research paper or thesis. In fact, most scientific research is preceded and to some extent guided by a review of the relevant literature. Purpose of a literature review: The literature review is an integral component of the scientific process, because it is the mechanism that allows science to be viewed as a cumulative process. Note that there has been much debate on what is and is not science; indeed, Curran (1987) provides a thoughtful review of this debate in the context of remote sensing. However, the purpose of the literature review remains the same regardless of the research methodology used. It is an essential test of your research question(s) against that which is already known; your literature review should answer several questions, Has your research question already been satisfactorily answered? If it has, you need to change or modify the question; if not:
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What is known? Is there a consensus on relevant issues? Is there significant debate on issues? What are the various positions? Is there an important chronology to the development of knowledge that effects the question you are asking? What are the gaps in knowledge? Which gaps have been identified by other researchers? Which gaps are apparent from your review and how do you intend to fill them? What appears to be the most fruitful research directions? Which directions have been indicated by other researches? Which directions do you see as a result of your literature review?

While this is not an exhaustive list, it will assist you in the development of your own questions to test your research question. However, nothing is ever black and white and only you can determine what is satisfactory, relevant, significant or important in the context of your own research.

The mechanics of a literature review: There are two components to every literature review: the physical search through the literature and the writing of the review. The physical search is the first step and it involves more than fronting up to the library. Do not underestimate the seductive charm of library offerings. Countless hours can be spend fruitlessly flipping through the latest issues of Science or Nature! While not at all a bad way to spend a day, it is not likely to advance your literature review. Before you get to the library have your research question(s) written out on paper and it never hurts to write out why you are interested in these questions (never rely on your memory!). When you get to the library, with question(s) in hand, have a plan and a preset time limit. In a sense this is a little like an exam, if the first question is proving too tough, move on to the second. If there seemingly is no end in sight to the number of references then its time to reevaluate your question: is it too broad? If you cannot find anything: are you looking in the right area; is your topic too narrow; are you doing leading edge research that's never been looked at before? Like the scientific method there are two ways to approach this: you can start with the general (eg. a book) and work your way down to the specific or you can start with the specific (eg. a research paper) and work from that author's references. There is no one best approach, but be systematic and use abstracting publications (eg. Geo Abstracts or Current Contents) to get an idea of the scope of the available literature. Make notes as you go; there is nothing worse than not being able to find a reference that you have previously skimmed and now want to read in full. Use library resources wisely: learn how to use the computer catalogue properly and efficiently, identify the available abstracting publications, scan references of useful papers to identify the most likely journals, identify authors who seem to be important in the area you are looking at, identify keywords in the area of interest, read the library guides for available holdings and talk to the Librarians. Again, make notes as you go. After a couple trips to the library and copious note taking, a picture (perhaps still fuzzy) begins to emerge. Its time to take your notes and begin to draft your literature review, but where do you start? You have a dozen books and notes from perhaps three dozen journal papers (several of which you have probably photocopied). A good place to start is with your research question, so write it out again. List the various keywords and authors that you have examined in your search. Are there any groupings that suggest themselves? This structuring or sketching out of the literature review is the first step in writing any scientific paper or thesis. As very few of us are naturally gifted writers, we need to write and rewrite. Everyone needs to have a sense of forward momentum. Don't get bogged down. If one area of the paper is proving difficult to write go on to another part. Never try to write a paper from start to finish. In fact, your abstract and introduction should be that last things you write. Write and rewrite. The objective is to communicate what you have found in trying to answer your research question from the literature. Communication is the objective of your writing, so make it clear, concise and consistent. Big words only serve to obfuscate your writing; this and other aspects of writing style are humorously tackled by Struck and White (1979) and detailed for the Australian publishing market by AGPS (1992). Style and writing guides are often well worth browsing if you are unsure how to approach scientific writing. Always, always, always, reread what you have written, get someone else to read it, read it aloud and then revise and rewrite. There is no known substitute for this process, but you might find it useful to have a read of Northey (1987), Barrass (1991) or O'Connor (1993).

Conclusion: Papers should end with a conclusion and identify what the author of the literature review has learned from the process. Your knowledge is then communicated by combining the question asked and the literature reviewed to produce a new and hopefully unique literature review. The interaction between the research question and relevant literature should be a continual process, but it is usually written up at the very end. This interaction is itself a learning process that gives most researchers new insight into their area of research; the conclusion should reflect this. References: AGPS (Australian Government Publishing Service), 1992. Style Manual: for authors, editors and printers, AGPS, Canberra, pp 409. Barrass, R. 1991. Scientists Must Write: A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students, Chapman & Hall, London, pp 176. Curran, P.J. 1987. "Review Article: Remote sensing methodologies and geography", Int. J. Remote Sensing, vol. 8, 1255-1275. O'Connor, M. 1993. Writing successfully in science, Chapman & Hall, London, pp 229. Northey, M. 1987, Making Sense: a student's guide to writing and style (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press, Toronto, pp 129. Strunk, W. and E.B. White 1979. The Elements of Style, MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, pp 92.

JCU Copywrite © Disclaimer. Although "All rights reserved" is the motto these days, my material may be freely copied for educational purposes, in part or in whole, as long as we are fairly cited (note: for some intended uses, proxy servers really remove the necessity for downloading this stuff to local servers for students). However, we are always happy to the discuss the potential commercial uses of our materials. [Created, January 1994][Last Modified, 14 July 1996][Author(s): Chris Skelly]

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