Posted in Education Help and Advice, Publishing

Tips for Writing Literature Reviews

Literature reviews. Some people really love doing them, some people absolutely despise them. If you have never heard of a literature review before, this is essentially a critical analysis of work which has already been published on a particular topic. Literature reviews are often used as a summary of work which has already been conducted to show the gaps in the knowledge which are going to be filled by a particular research project. A literature review is normally at the very start of a published article, this first thing that is read that is not the title or abstract. In some cases, an entire article may be a literature review, as was the case for my very first publication.

When you first start university and are expected to write a literature review, the whole idea of it can be very daunting. Where do I start? How do I know what is useful and what isn’t useful? How do I search for sources to use? Where do I search for them? It’s definitely one of those things that becomes easier the more you do it and the more people that you talk to about it.

Think about synonyms for your keywords.

If you find that you’re not getting very many results from the words you’re using, consider looking up synonyms or words that are similar. For example, if you are looking for articles about education instead try using “learning” or “teaching” which may bring up more results.

Don’t forget Google Scholar.

A lot of people seem to forget about google scholar, or if you’re an undergraduate you may feel like it’s something you can’t use… But you can! It definitely shouldn’t be the only thing you use, but sometimes it can be a really good starting point and it might help you to find some good journals.

Find out from academics the best databases.

Databases are essentially a search engine for journal articles. But there are so many it is difficult to know which ones are best for the kind of literature review that you are writing. Ask academics or your supervisor on what databases they would recommend. It may be that you use the database and don’t find that it works for you, but it’s always good to get recommendations from other scholars.

Look in the referencing section of articles.

Another thing that people often forget is to look in the referencing section of articles they have managed to get, especially if its one that you find contains a lot of useful information. Look at the literature review for that article and see who they have referenced, because you never know, it could be a really useful piece!

If you find the same journal popping up – look in that journal.

Similar to the previous point, if you find that there are several useful articles from the same journal then look up that journal and see what else they have published as they could have more articles on a similar topic. Journals tend to have what is known as a “conversation” and published articles add to this “conversation” so if you find a few articles from the same journal, chances are, there are more.

Think about the point of writing the literature review.

The most common reason for writing a literature review is to summarise previous work to show where the gaps in the knowledge are which you are going to be adding to using your research. This means that you often have to be critical and also it helps you to decide what you should and shouldn’t include. You need to include articles which are going to convince the reader that what you are researching is worth doing and that it is adding to the existing knowledge and not just repeating previous work. On the other hand, like me, you could have written a paper that was a literature review. In which case you need to think about the topic you have chosen to write about and keep a critical eye. You need to summarise key studies for your reader.

Once you’ve found enough articles, plan it!

It seems so obvious. You are always told – even from being in school – to plan things! Just like planning an essay, it makes everything flow so much easier and seem well thought-out. It will not only make your writing better, but it will be easier on yourself. If you plan, then you simply have to sit and write, where as if you just delve into writing you might be sat there thinking “now I know I had an article that mentioned that somewhere…”

Don’t assume the reader will know what you’re talking about.

This is something I have been guilty of many of times. Don’t assume that everyone who is going to read your article will know a lot about the area which you are writing about. Even at undergraduate level, when you tend to solely be writing for lecturers of that discipline, it is good practice to explain yourself and write as though the person who is going to read it – is not in your field. I found getting a family member or a friend to read my work very useful, this meant if I hadn’t explained something enough, they’d be able to tell me because they wouldn’t understand what I was talking about!

Don’t just accept what you’re reading as fact – Analyse it, Question it. 

During my undergraduate degree, this was something I rarely did and found it difficult to do. Quite often you think that because something is published, it must mean that its correct, which is not always the case. You have to question and challenge the assumptions made in an article. Not just on the results, but even on their participants and methods that they used. Was it appropriate? Was it enough to be able to generalise to the entire population? Was there a good representation of different age, genders and ethnicity? These are the sorts of things you have to be thinking about every time you read an article.

Write, Write, Write.

Finally, just keep writing. As daunting as it may be, and some people find the act of writing a literature review incredibly tedious, sometimes just getting stuck in is what is going to get you going and get you to finishing.



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