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5 Tips to write a great literature review

Andrea Hayward | Aug 23, 2017 | 3,008 views

Once you have decided on a research area/topic you’d like to study, and have formulated a research question, you need to review the literature on that topic. A literature review is a critical summary of all the published works on a particular topic. Conducting a comprehensive literature review is an essential step of research and publication. There are many benefits of a good literature review. Science Careers recently asked several scientists to discuss why it is important to keep up with literature in the field and they received several interesting responses. One such response, which struck a chord with me, was that by Dr. Denis Bauer. Dr. Bauer said, “Staying up to date with the literature is perhaps the single most important skill that remains crucial throughout a researcher’s career. Without knowing where the current gaps are, your findings will either be old hat or too out in left field to be cited right away.” Doing a thorough literature review can benefit you in another important way. A literature review is an important part of a scientific manuscript submitted for publication to a journal. A thorough literature review will show the journal editor and referees that you have done your research and are aware of existing research in your field. 

Thus, there is no doubt that an effective literature review is very necessary for a good research paper. However, while reviewing the literature in your research area, you may find that there aren’t too many journal articles, i.e., not much research seems to have been published. But, this might not be the case. The global research output increases every year by approximately 2.5 million new journal articles. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you’re considering a research topic that no one else within your field has worked on or written about. (Note: However, this could be a common and frustrating experience for researchers who are focusing on highly specialized or specific aspects of a problem in their field, i.e., in cases when little or no research has been carried out.) 

So if the problem isn’t one of availability, then what else could be stopping you from finding relevant literature? It is possible that your search strategies are either entirely incorrect or simply insufficient. It is not mandatory for you to have a long reference list at the end of your manuscript. However, when conducting research, your review of the existing literature must present a view of the research field as it currently is. So what should you do if you fail to find relevant studies in your research area? These tips should help you get a head-start on that pending literature review: 

1. Broaden your search area 
You have been thinking about your research question for days, maybe weeks. So it is possible that your thinking might be too constricted. You may have drawn very tight mental borders around your research question. As a result, you might not be able to see other research areas that might be relevant to your paper, even if they don’t link directly. For example, let’s assume that your research question is about studying whether plastic can be made compostable. After relentless online searching you’ve secured only two papers on the topic. You are at an advantage! You’ve realized that your research will fill the huge gap in this area of research. This will give you the edge to make a more significant contribution and assert the importance of your work. But you’re already worrying about what will go in your literature review section. 

If you were to broaden your search area, you might find relevant literature to back the hypothetical research question mentioned above. For instance, you could look at processes that make plastic biodegradable, or you could search for research on other materials like plastic being used in compost. Both of these areas, while not directly related to your research question, will surely give you sound groundwork to build upon. To begin with, you could also look into more environmentally friendly plastics, such as bioplastics that are made from natural materials like corn starch. This will not only help with more relevant reading, but will also help with placing your specific research question in a broader conceptual framework and justify the contribution of your research. 

2. Make sure you use the right keywords 
One of the problems in your search for relevant sources could be irrelevant or unrelated keywords. Your keywords should be well defined and specifically targeted to the research papers you are looking for. Once you have your research question, identify its main concepts and then define keywords for each concept. For instance, if you are interested in researching childhood schizophrenia, you could use keywords such as “schizophrenia,” “early onset schizophrenia,” “schizophrenia in children,” or “early symptoms of schizophrenia.” If you are conducting your search on Google and want to make the search more specific, enclose your keywords or key phrases in double quotation marks. This will help you retrieve only those pages that contain your key terms in the sequence specified by you. Here’s an example of such a search with enclosed keywords: 

An example of an enclosed keyword search

If you keywords are not enclosed, changing the order of the keywords also retrieves different search results. In other words, “schizophrenia symptoms in children” and “childhood schizophrenia symptoms” would give you differing search results. If you’re still finding trouble finding relevant literature, you could also expand your keyword list by noting synonyms and alternate phrases for each key term. To make your search more focussed, use keywords that you intend to use in your own paper. This will indicate the relevance of those terms in your field. It might also shine some light on whether you should be more precise in defining your concepts as well as your keywords. 

3. If you find relevant articles, explore them in depth 
Having a limited number of references might work to your benefit – you get a short but comprehensive list of articles that you can explore in great detail. You can spend time deliberating the details of each article because you don’t have an exhaustive list of references to go through. There is absolutely no need for you to be selective and constantly worry that you may have excluded an article that could later turn out to be of utmost importance to your study. In addition, if there are few sources in your specific research area, then it is possible that many fundamental questions haven’t been addressed and answered yet. If this is the case, then you could find limitations in the existing literature and use them to build or enhance your own research question. 

4. Follow the citations of the articles you do find 
Citations direct readers to prior relevant research in a specific field. By adding a reference or a citation, you are acknowledging the other articles that you have used as sources. There are two ways to follow an article’s citations – forward searching and backward searching. If you have managed to find a couple of relevant articles, you could look at the reference lists of these articles. This is one way of finding more relevant articles pertaining to your research area and is known as backward searching. Alternatively, you could also check the articles that have cited the papers that you initially found. This is known as forward searching and could help you find articles that weren’t accessible through your keyword search. Finally, you could check other papers published by the authors of the papers you have found. All of this will help you to build on the references you have already gathered. 

5. Ask for help 
If all else fails, then don’t hesitate to ask for help. Start by approaching the librarian at your university and ask him/her if your library has a subscription to the journal you need. If you have found a few articles, then identify the journal they were published in and seek it out for similar articles. You could also ask a professor, a supervisor or a senior colleague. Having gone through a similar plight as the one you are currently facing, they will surely have a few tricks up their sleeve. It is perfectly fine to ask them to guide you in the right direction when you find yourself stuck. 

You could also explore researcher forums and groups such as ResearchGate, Quora, or Mendeley, which are virtual spaces specially designed for researchers. You can interact with other researchers and request them for journal articles that you are unable to find. Similarly, you could also return the favour by sharing articles when other researchers are in need. However, ensure that you receive and share only legal copies of the journal articles. Remember that the person who shares the article should have its copyright. 

If you are stuck while reviewing literature, it is unlikely that a lack of previously published research papers is holding you back. When you can’t find relevant literature in your immediate research area, you should always ask yourself “what else is pertinent?” In such a situation all you need to do is to identify all possible areas that could be linked to your research question and shortlist those that might be relevant to your own paper. This will help you either find references or build on the ones you’ve already found. Ultimately, this approach will culminate in a comprehensive, well-documented review of existing literature in your area of interest. You could also take help of some professional publication support services to ensure that you find the most relevant papers, for example, Editage’s Literature Search Service.



How do you find relevant literature in your field?
Do you have any tips you could offer?


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