Literature Review

#50: How to master the literature review

Drafting a literature review doesn’t require a lab or experiments and you also don’t need to run an interview survey, collect field samples or analyse complex data. A literature review is basically desk work. It is a perfectly targeted paper for those being at the beginning of a project. Yet, many of you tell us in our online courses that you have trouble approaching the literature review. This post is written to help you getting the review done! Simply by answering ten key questions, we will guide you through conducting a great literature review for a research paper.  

In this post we look closer at one specific problem that many of you have with paper writing in your home-office: How to master the literature review: 

1. What do we mean by a literature review? 

A literature review is a paper technique that surveys and studies the research literature on a specific topic in order to get an overview of the knowledge available on this topic. 

2. Why are we conducting a literature review? 

First of all, a literature review serves the person conducting the review to acquire this knowledge. But moreover, it is done to create a written piece that is shared with other researchers to inform them about “the state of knowledge” on a particular subject.   Fairly often, it’s an exercise that ends up as a written text. Literature reviews can be part of a doctoral dissertation, a thesis, a textbook or a journal paper, as the review paper is a specific journal paper type serving the purpose of informing readers about the state of knowledge (see our post 28: What type of journal paper to write? for further details). 

Overall, there are several motivations for conducting a literature review: 

  1. You want to get a complete overview of the state-of-the-art on a specific research question. 
  2. You want to find out what the open questions are (knowledge gaps) in your field of research. 
  3. You need help getting your own research started and understanding how your work fits into what is already done. 
  4. You want to give a state-of-the-art lecture or presentation on a specific topic. 
  5. You want to write a review paper or a literature review section for your thesis. 
  6. You want to write a research paper and the literature review helps you
    a) to frame your research, provide background information and justify your paper objective in the introduction,
    b) to justify the methods you used, or
    c) to discuss and place your findings in a wider research context.  

3. Why do YOU want to review the literature? 

You need to define what your exact goal is when deciding “I am doing a literature review”! Option (1) above is nobly motivated but you will have to stick to it for a couple of years to be fully able to reach it. It is far too wide. Motivations (2) and (3) are valid tasks that you have to do anyway at the beginning of your research. Motivations (4) and (5) are very specific with the literature review as the main output as a result of the activity. 

Based on the correspondence we’ve received at TRESS ACADEMIC from many of you during the Corona lockdown, we assume motivation (6)  is the most relevant to you. You’ve told us in our online course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals” that you are sitting in your home-offices these days and trying to work and start on a paper. So the focus here will be on empowering you to get ahead with the literature review for writing a research paper. For all other motivations, the suggestions below will have to be modified slightly and certainly expanded with regard to the time you will spend on doing them. 

4. Where to find the literature for review? 

Here we suggest four main sources to use to find the literature. You should be able to use all of them from your home-office, provided you have access to the internet to access your usual databases: 

  1. Explore online by using Google Scholar.  
  2. Use your university’s/institute’s online library databases. 
  3. Search in specific journal databases provided by the large publishers (e.g. ScienceDirect, Scopus, IEEE, PubMed, Web of Science).  
  4. Browse lists of references from your key papers that you have already. 

5. How to search in these literature databases?

With approximately  2-3 million papers published annually, it is vital to conduct your search systematically if you don’t want to get buried under a pile of “potential papers” to read. Identify the main keywords that characterise your work best and use them as search words in the databases listed above. Don’t forget to think about synonyms to the keywords that might be used by some and search for these as well. Use Boolean operators in search engines to combine keywords to get more relevant results. Common parameters that may help are “AND” and “OR”. The parameter “-“ can be used to exclude a specific search term. Use double quotation marks for exact matches of the words you are looking for.   

The classical, non-database driven search approach is the snowball system. You start with the 2-3 key papers that you already have on your topic. Check their lists of references, as there might be very valuable papers cited here. Try to get a hold of these and browse their lists of references. This way you will start with relevant papers and move to other relevant papers. 

6. How to select the literature you review?

You cannot read everything that you identified in your searches. Use the following approaches to select which sources to look at and which to skip:

  1. Start with the most recent sources. 
  2. Look for well-known authors. 
  3. Look for well-cited sources (see Google Scholar, Scopus or Web of Science for numbers). 
  4. Start with papers from international peer-reviewed journals (as journals prefer them as sources rather than books, book chapters, reports. or conference proceedings). 

7. How to read the literature you review? 

Even if you have been very efficient in identifying the most key papers related to your work, you most likely won’t have the time and energy to read all of them entirely (although it would be a good exercise). Skimming and screening the papers is now required!

When working under quarantine and home-office circumstances, you will likely not print all the papers (which you probably also don’t do in the office). So you’re reading them as PDFs. How do you best read them? 

  1. Review the title again: Is it closely related to your work? 
  2. Read the abstract: Can you identify a clear relevance of this paper for your work?
  3. Look for the paper objectives at the end of the introduction: Are they linked to your work? 
  4. Browse section headings, particular sub-headings as they indicate where relevant content could be placed. 
  5. Browse the references to get an impression of what the sources are that this study has used so that you can judge whether it is state-of-the-art. 
  6. Screen the conclusion: Is it relevant for your paper?  

8. How to make notes from what you read? 

Ideally, you need to touch or screen every paper only once in your literature review exercise. However, this requires that you make yourself notes from your first screening, which you can go back to when putting your literature review together. Either you annotate the paper directly on the printed or digital copy or, what we recommend, you use review notes where you fill in all the information that you can then easily access to compare this paper to others you’ve reviewed. We’ve created a free worksheet Literature Review Notes especially for this purpose just for our SMART ACADEMICS. 

9. How to structure a written literature review?

If you are working on a literature review section within your paper, you have several ways to organise it: 

  1. Chronological: You describe the narrative of the development from oldest to newest. 
  2. Thematic: You focus on the different thematic aspects of the research problem. 
  3. Methodological: You structure your section along the different approaches that previous studies used to tackle the problem. 
  4. Theoretical: You follow the different theoretical streams that you find in the literature. 

It is also common in a literature review section to look for trends in the current themes, ongoing discussions, or gaps that you identify. 

10. How much time should be spent on the literature review?

This is a crucial question! If you wanted to get a complete overview on the state-of-the-art, you could easily spend months or even years on the literature review. But since your motivation is to get the paper written, submitted and published soon, you will have to do this far more time-effectively. Set yourself a time-frame based on how much time you can allow yourself for doing the literature review. We would recommend to spend about 2-3 weeks on this task before moving on with other tasks for your paper. 

Don’t forget, you don’t need to report everything! Nobody expects you to! Very often, it is about finding the three or four key references that you can include in your paper. Also, don’t report everything in your introduction section. That would be boring your readers, who are experts like you. All they want to see is that you can frame and embed your research within the context of the state-of-the-art, and not drown your readers in an endless literature review. The majority of your readers would skip such a section anyway. 


We want you to use the time you have in your home-office in a productive way. For some of you, the Pandemie has given a boost to your paper writing output and it probably came at the right time so you can solely focus on this task. But for those of you who are in the early phase of a paper, we wanted to give you a quick guide for how to deal with the literature review exercise. It is important to recognise that this is not an exercise where you should know everything before you get started with writing. No, see it rather as one step on the way to the paper, but as a step that you will easily master. 

When you’re reading and reviewing many papers for the literature review, don’t assume that what you read in these papers is set in stone. Papers are not necessarily perfect when they get published, nor do they have to be. They all have problems and deficiencies, so be aware of it and don’t faithfully trust everything you read. You should be critical in your review of the literature and express your opinion. 

This of course also applies to your own writing. Don’t hold back from progressing with your paper because you think it is not good enough. Take the time available and try to get a paper out soon. This could be a silver lining to a period of uncertainty and difficulty for academics.

If you need more help with writing and publishing your journal paper, join Paper Writing Academy. In this course, we will not only address the aspect of mastering the literature review, but give you a whole run-down of how to write a paper that gets published. 

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