Writing & Research
How To Review Literature
Diane Scutt, PhD, TDCR,
was qualified originally as a diagnostic radiographer, and currently is reader and director of postgraduate research at the
University of Liverpool, School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, in the United
“Writing & Research” discusses issues of concern to writers and researchers in the radiologic sciences and is written by members of the Editorial
Review Board. Comments and suggestions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. I have been teaching research methodology and statistics for some 15 years now and have a good feel for the issues that are usually problematic for new researchers, whether they are clinicians or students. Reviewing the literature is a common problem area. Novice researchers often hear the term used and nod wisely, assuming that the ability to do this effectively will (maybe by osmosis) emerge once they start to read. This does not happen. What does happen is that the pile of articles accumulated gets larger by the day and simply adds to the confusion and apparent enormity of the task.
Fear not, clarification is at hand! One of the main problems with reviewing literature arises as a result of not understanding how the research process works; hence, the real purpose of reviewing the literature is not abundantly clear. Many people starting out in research find themselves faced with the task of reviewing literature, often because it seems a gentle way to start in research or because someone else inflicts it upon them. It is not an exercise in its own right, but a precursor to a better understanding of the field you wish to explore.
What Is the Literature Review?
A literature review is just a classification and evaluation of what scholars and researchers have written on a topic.
Literature reviews then can be organized according to a guiding concept, such as a research objective, thesis or central problem. An analogy I often use is that it’s rather like me asking you to bake a particular type of cake and bring it in next week so that I could enter it into a competition.
Most people would need some guidance.
Their first stop would be a cookbook
(or, more likely, several to compare types of cakes, ingredients required, length of time to prepare and cook). This is your literature review. You have a task to accomplish and questions to answer; thus, you find the most up-to-date, current
information to see how others have done it, what they found, why they found it, how it relates to the question and whether it worked. You can now tackle your cake baking better informed, and the likelihood of producing a prize-winning specimen is greatly improved.
A literature review should set the scene for addressing a particular research question and should identify what is current in the field. It also allows a researcher to refine the research question based on the experiences of others. For example, you may find that a particular method is problematic, or you may get some ideas for how to do things better, as well as how not to do them.
The objective of a literature review is not to rack up points by listing as many articles as possible. It is to demonstrate your intellectual ability to recognize relevant information, synthesize and evaluate it according to the guidelines and the concept you have determined for yourself.
It is not simply what literature exists, but also includes your informed evaluation of the literature.
Organizing the Literature Review
When beginning a literature review, most people hit their first hurdle when they realize an opinion is required. How can you know whether this article is any good or not? Without some guidance, it can be difficult, as is the case for any acquired skill. First, you need a prescribed system to boost your confidence, and then you need to practice.
An effective process for