How To Write an Academic or Scientific Literature Review

How To Write an Academic or Scientific Literature Review
Writing reviews has become an extremely commonplace activity in today’s online publishing and reading environments, so many people are familiar with rating books, stories and even blogs according to their preferences and sharing their opinions about just about every kind of text they encounter. However, such reviews are entirely unlike the academic and scientific literature reviews that constitute vital parts of research-based documents or stand on their own as review articles in scholarly journals. An explanation of exactly what a literature review is and some tips on how to write a literature review may therefore prove helpful for students and other researchers who discover that they must write a literature review, but are unsure of how to do so successfully.

A literature review is basically a survey of the published writing dedicated to investigating and discussing a specific subject area or topic. Peer-reviewed papers, reports and monographs presenting original research tend to be preferred sources for scholarly literature reviews, but any kind of relevant document might be included. An effective review should offer a summary of the publications reviewed, particularly the most important contributions to a field or area of study, but it should do much more than summarise and describe. Critical analysis and evaluation of the research methodology and findings of each of the studies discussed are also essential, as are comparing and contrasting publications to reveal important relationships among studies and ultimately the larger patterns and trends in the body of scholarship examined. Like an academic or scientific research paper, a literature review requires a formal written style as well as accurate citations and references, but as a general rule it does not report the processes and results of original research conducted by the reviewer.
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A literature review usually is closely related to the reviewer’s own research, however. For example, a literature review constitutes an essential part of an original research document such as an academic book or a scientific journal paper, and a review of this kind is directly connected to the research reported in the book or paper. How to write the literature review, the focus of the reviewer, the choice of studies to consider, the organisation of the discussion and other aspects of the review are determined by the need to situate the original research for the reader and demonstrate its value. Gaps in the existing scholarship, unproductive investigative directions, misinterpretations and other shortcomings in the body of previously published work are highlighted to explain and justify the pressing need for the reviewer’s own research, which is generally reported after the literature review. A literature review in a scholarly book or doctoral thesis may be long and leisurely, but in a short research paper or journal article it is often quite brief, so a clear focus on setting a perfect stage for presenting the original research is vital to write an appropriate and effective literature review.

A literature review written as an independent review article for an academic or scientific journal is also closely related to the reviewer’s own research. In fact, such reviews are often solicited by journal editors from prestigious experts who have spent a lifetime researching a particular topic or problem. This does not mean that early-career scholars cannot write and publish literature review articles in their areas of expertise: indeed, students are often asked to write review papers to demonstrate an understanding of the scholarship related to the topic or focus of a university course. However, the breadth and depth of knowledge required to write a publishable review article tend to be significant, although review articles do vary considerably in scope, length and purpose. One literature review might offer an extended narrative description of the entire history of scholarship on a subject, whereas another will discuss only those studies published over a few years or even during a single year. The publications reviewed are sometimes discussed in chronological order, but the reviewer might instead arrange the material according to the methodologies used in the publications reviewed, the nature of the results obtained by different investigators or the themes and patterns that emerge as the scholarship is read and critically assessed. Journal instructions for the authors of review articles should always be consulted for structural requirements and other guidance, but in most cases a clearly defined topic, a specific research question or some other guiding principle to achieve a narrow focus is necessary to write a successful review article.

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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.

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