Literature reviews: a survival guide

A literature review is a summary of the state of the art literature for a given topic. This involves finding and searching through a range of academic papers that relate to the topic. The key points are taken from each and inform a well-written narrative which usually serves as an introduction or background to give context to a written document. At this stage of my project, I will only discuss my methods for organizing the information taken from papers, and the writing process will be discussed in a later post.

For the past few weeks, I have been reading literature that relates to my PhD and making summaries of any interesting points from academic papers. I have been doing this task on and off for the past three years and I will likely be adding to my literature review document until I am nearly finished my PhD thesis.

Up until now, I have completed two formal literature reviews: one as part of my undergraduate final year project and one as part of my Master’s thesis. The following is what I have learned from conducting previous literature searches:

  • Focus is crucial to nailing a literature review
  • Summarise your findings
  • Document anything that is interesting (or could be relevant)

For me, it is extremely important to be able to focus when reading a paper. Looking for a particular piece of information such as a specific method that was used, makes it easy to efficiently extract information from a paper. I like to do my literature reviews with an empty schedule so that I can get through as many papers as possible while remaining focused on the topic.

Usually, reading any paper front to back is a waste of time. It is much more time efficient to take notes of the relevant sections. So far, I have been adding to my literature review document in sections – which allows me to focus and skim through parts of relevant papers without reading them all in full. Reading without taking notes means that the information may be forgotten when it is the time to write. Well-documented notes are crucial for referencing the correct source of your information.

My advice to any students commencing a literature review would be to first ask why and how you are going to do this search, before ever opening a new search tab.

Firstly, why are you doing this literature search?

  • Primarily, to check that the work you are about to do has not already been done – this could save you from doing experiments in some cases. You may also want to follow existing methods rather than re-inventing the wheel
  • To find the niche where your work fits into the existing research. You are more than likely building on the research of others, it is important to check what has been done and where your work fits among the existing work.
  • To get familiar with the writing style of the journal you are submitting to.
  • Improving your own writing style

Secondly, how are you going to do this literature search? For me, the most efficient literature review method is as follows:

  1. Decide what area of the literature you are researching
  2. Collect papers from a quick systematic search
  3. Set up an excel sheet with different headings of information that you will be interested in
  4. Go through the papers and take out information from each
  5. Record the information

I use a single excel document with a different spreadsheet for each topic of the project. I like to give each paper its own row within the relevant spreadsheet. I summarise anything that could be used for when I am writing. I highlight the cells with key papers so I know to come back to these when I am eventually writing. In the past, I used to read papers and write summary paragraphs but these paragraphs never made it to the final written draft. It makes more sense to summarise everything now so that I can easily catch up on the topics and write with a better flow when I am drafting the thesis. My PhD Literature review spreadsheet has the following topics: 3D printing with UV curable composites, cystic fibrosis, feeding tubes, general microbiology, Gram positive bacteria, and metal oxides. These topics should fit nicely to give a comprehensive background to my project when it is time to write.

This blog post describes my method and motive for doing literature reviews and my recommendations for any students that were starting a literature search for the first time. Like anything else, it is a case of trial and error to find what works best.

One thought on “Literature reviews: a survival guide

  1. I really enjoyed this blog – really informative and practical. We can all benefit from your experience of doing a literature review


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