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Writing Your Paper - CECS and Mathematics

Literature review

Literature reviews: An overview for graduate students

What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one?

Literature reviews: An overview for graduate students is published under a CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA US license.

What is a scientific literature review?

A literature review is an exploration of existent studies pertaining a a given line of inquiry. It is NOT a book report or an annotated bibliography, simply explaining what each article is about. In a literature review you are not only analyzing but also synthesizing the information presented by others to create something new. You are contributing to the scholarship in the field.

Who else has looked into the question you are exploring and what did they find?

What are the ramifications of their results?

Is there controversy/conflicting conclusions around any of the aspects of this research? 

What is the next steps that can be taken to further the field?

Were there problems with the methods used previously? Do the conclusions follow from the data?

Why do you need to write a scientific literature review?

To be able to further your field you need to first learn about what has already been done.

People across all fields: from Isaac Newton with his famous quote "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (written in 1675 in a letter to Robert Hooke), to Mary Shelly in her preface to Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”, and even Steve Jobs who in an 1996 interview for Wired Magazine said, “Creativity is just connecting things...The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." will readily admit that the first step in any pursuit, if it is to have real meaning, is to build upon the knowledge and experience of those who have examined the issues before.

Scholarship, especially in science, is a conversation and YOU are now part of that conversation!

Literature Review Presentation

How do you write a scientific literature review?

Step 1: Find the existent research.

You will need to revise your search as you go. You will encounter new terms that will help you to find better resources going forward. You will find new ways to weed out irrelevant articles which will save you time when it comes to reading them. DO NOT be afraid to revise your search terms and methodology as you go! This is an iterative process.

Formulate a precise and targeted question.

Follow the points made HERE on creating a narrow and targeted research question. 

Think of all the synonyms and all the angles that could touch upon your question.

Look HERE for tips on creating search queries. 

Create an account and/or open up your citation tracker of choice.

For tips on selecting and installing a citation tracker and for an overview of the features available to you in them see THIS guide from my colleague Raya.

Decided on where you will need to search.

1. Start with a preliminary search in the Mardigian Search bar on the library home page,

2. Be sure to look at the engineering databases that the University subscribes to HERE

3. Go more board and look at databases aimed at other fields HERE.

4. Are there any professional organizations or conferences that may have proceedings which touch on your research question?

5. Look in open sources such as public research institutes like NIS, NASA, or Fraunhoffer or Planck.  Also try Google Scholar and other open sources of books, book chapters, or journals like DOAB and DOJA.

 Begin looking for information.

Read the abstracts to determine which articles are really on target for your topic. 

Normally if you were writing an ordinary research paper this is the point when you would begin to evaluate your sources using the T.R.A.P.P. method or some other evaluation technique, however, in a literature review you DON'T want to eliminate poorly designed studies, or uncorrelated results, or even flat out biased research. You need to include those in this project to understand the state of the existing research on the topic. So keep all those!

Save the citation information.

Record the citation information for, and the links to return to, ALL the articles you want to read in more detail to possibly include in your review. (This is where your citation tracker will come in very handy as you will be able to save citations for articles discovered in a wide variety of places all together, making it easier to return to them to read them in-depth later!)


Step 2: Read

Organize your thoughts as you read in whatever method works best for you. HERE is an organizer I have created for you to use if you would like.

Find commonalities.

  • What results are found across the research?
  • How do the design of experiments relate to each other?
  • Is everyone ignoring the same inconvenient aspect of the topic?

Read the procedures carefully. 

  • Are there any faults in the procedure?
  • Is it really testing what it claims to be testing?
  • How could it be improved upon? 

Read the conclusions carefully.

  • Do their conclusions follow logically from the results?
  • Are they claiming causation where only correlation exists?
  • What could be done to provide greater evidence for the conclusion being drawn by the authors?

Look for connections amongst the studies.

  • Do other studies agree? Or does one "disprove" the last?
  • Is there controversy over the procedure, the results, or the conclusions?
  • Can you find any response papers written about this study?
  • What do other studies have to say about this one?

Find what isn't there. 

  • What questions would you ask this researcher?
  • What new questions are raised by this research?
  • How could they have gone further? Now what?
  • What connections are there to other fields that could be explored?
  • What are the ramifications for the field or for the public or for public safety?


Step 3: Write

This isn't about you, it is about the existing research. Keep your tone passive and your opinions out of your writing. Use facts and observations to back up any claims you make in your review.

You may want to begin by organizing your observations around the main ideas which you found to be central or recurring in your reading. Or you may want to organize your review around important studies that are referred to and responded to over and over in subsequent papers. Either way is fine just be sure to pick a organization scheme and stick with it to make your review understandable and easy to follow for your readers.

You are writing for a technically savvy audience who knows about the field in general but maybe not this specific research. So it is ok to use some level of technical jargon but do not assume your reader has read these studies themselves.

Technical writing in general is pithy. Stick to the point. There is no need for flowery writing, idioms, or figurative language of any type.

Use a point by point, statement-proof-conclusion style in your writing.

Don't forget your citations! For more information about citations in scientific fields check out THIS page.

Finally, don't forget to edit, and proofread your work using a checklist (such as this guide to editing from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and this guide to proofreading from Indiana-Bloomington) before submitting. If you need help with this step please reach out to the University of Michigan - Dearborn Writing Center.

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