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Advanced Writing

Writing a Comprehensive Literature Review: Tips from a LetPub Editor

 

Dr. Tom Glose, LetPub Editor

January 2021


When writing a research article, one of the most difficult yet critical parts to develop is the literature review. Typically placed within the introduction, the literature review serves multiple purposes:

• First, a literature review provides the reader with the major advances that have already been published related to the topic of your research. These details inform the reader of how your work fits within the context of what has already been accomplished by others.
• Second, a well-developed literature review allows for the current knowledge gaps that exist to be readily identified. Importantly, the goals of research are to expand upon what we know as a community and to provide new insights on the topic of interest. Thus, identifying knowledge gaps within the literature allows for novel advances to be made and makes your research captivating.
• Third, a literature review provides editors and reviewers alike the justification for why you conducted your research. A comprehensive literature review is the foundation of a strong and compelling manuscript.

Despite the importance of a well-constructed literature review, many researchers are unsure of how to write—let alone start—this critical section of a manuscript. Here, we provide some expert tips on how to start and structure a strong, informative, and compelling literature review.

Search for and evaluate relevant literature

To begin your search for relevant existing literature, we suggest identifying keywords that relate to your research question. Keywords are an essential tool for effectively searching databases for your topic. Once you identify an article of interest, read the abstract to quickly identify if the paper is relevant to your research question, and if so, check the references section for other articles that may be relevant. Keep track of papers or authors that routinely appear in the relevant references, as this typically indicates that their work is fundamental to your topic.

Next, for each publication that you identify, you will need to evaluate if it is a good fit for your research article. This can be done by identifying the key questions the authors are trying to answer, the strengths and weaknesses of the study, and the key results and conclusions. The use of typical metrics such as citation counts can provide insights into how influential the publication is. Generally, articles with higher citation counts indicate that they are substantial contributions to the field. Importantly, when selecting relevant literature for your review, try and incorporate as many recent publications as possible, as this will indicate that you are knowledgeable of the cutting-edge research in your field. Remember, however, that citing seminal or foundational works is also important: give credit where credit is due.

Structuring your literature review

Once you have collected the relevant literature, it is time to begin structuring your literature review. The typical framework of an introduction section follows a funnel shape: start with broad statements and end with more focused information. First, refer to what has already been done by past researchers; this sets you up to state the importance of your research topic in the context of others. Next, identify the knowledge gap in the literature that you are trying to fill with your current study. This part of the literature review highlights the advancement your research will make as well as justifies why your study is needed. Finally, end your literature review with how your current study will address the knowledge gap that you explicitly identified in your previous paragraphs. By following this format, the reader will understand not only why your research topic is important, but also the limitations of previous work (i.e., the knowledge gap), and thus the novelty and impact of your research.

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