How To Write a Successful Literature Review for a Research Paper

How To Write a Successful Literature Review for a Research Paper
Most original research papers require a section dedicated to reviewing the existing publications in the research area. This literature review is usually necessary whether the research paper is intended for submission to an academic or scientific journal or written for the instructor of a university course. Knowing how to write an effective literature review is therefore an essential skill for the authors of research papers, yet literature reviews are unlike the other kinds of documents written by students and scholars and they tend to present distinct challenges. In a successful literature review for a research paper, the author must survey, summarise and synthesise the published scholarship directly relevant to the research reported in the paper. He or she should also analyse and evaluate the selected studies individually and comparatively, providing information on major contributions and patterns as well as a clear picture of the current state of research in the area. The guiding concept should be the research problem or question upon which the paper focuses, with the primary purpose being to demonstrate the immediate need for the research and the value it will have for other investigators and practitioners.

If that sounds like a difficult writing task, it is because it is, and the unique nature of each literature review and each research paper makes it virtually impossible to offer specific and precise advice about exactly how to write a literature review that will effectively fulfill its purpose within a research paper. The following steps may not apply to all reviews or cover everything that must be considered in certain reviews, but they are the basic procedures for writing a literature review for most research papers.
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1. Consult the relevant guidelines for information on literature reviews. If the research paper is intended for journal publication, check the instructions for authors for information on the length, structure and content expected for the literature review section and consult any style manuals mentioned in those guidelines as well. If the paper is part of the work submitted for a course or degree, ask your instructor what is expected for the literature review and check for departmental or university guidelines and templates. Whether publication or course credit is your goal, reading published literature reviews in your field will provide helpful models. Remember that you will need to know exactly what your literature review should be in order to know how to write it successfully.

2. Search for publications directly related to the research topic, problem or question on which your research paper will focus. Be sure to use a few different keywords and key phrases and to search in more than one database commonly used in your discipline or field of study. The catalogues of university libraries are also excellent resources, as are the reference lists of recent publications in the area such as research papers, review articles and academic books. Pay attention to citation patterns, noting and selecting the publications and authors cited most frequently by other researchers, and be sure to include studies contrary to your perspective as well as those that support it. Try to focus on peer-reviewed publications and primary research, though secondary research can also be important for some topics. In many disciplines, especially in the sciences, the most recent publications will be particularly vital, but they can be difficult to track down because it takes time for new publications to be included in databases, so a quick scan of the newest issues of relevant journals may be helpful. A search for sources for the literature review associated with a research paper usually takes place before other aspects of the research and certainly before the writing has begun, so refining the research topic is often a normal part of the search process. In some cases, the scope may need to be widened to discover enough pertinent literature, but more often a narrowing of the subject is required.

3. Read, analyse and evaluate the studies discovered in the search. Some publications may prove irrelevant and others far more interesting than expected; still others will lead you via citations and references to important studies that were not discovered in your initial search. Each publication should be read carefully, thoroughly and critically, focussing on major elements such as the methods used, the analyses performed, the results obtained and the conclusions and implications presented. Certain aspects will no doubt prove particularly important in relation to the subject and purpose of your research: if, for instance, innovative methodology is central to your paper, focussing on changes and developments (or the lack of them) in the methodologies used to investigate the problem or area over the years will be productive. As you read and analyse, it is imperative to take careful notes not only on the sources you read, but also on what you think about them and why. Bibliographical information for each study should always be clearly recorded along with the notes about it so that there is no confusion about the source of specific procedures, results and ideas, and it is also essential to distinguish source content from your own thoughts.

4. Compare the publications you are reviewing, categorise them in relation to your research and assess the body of scholarship as a whole. This process will probably already have begun as you read the individual studies in Step 3, but it is an indispensible part of how to write a literature review that effectively supports the original research reported in a paper, which is, of course, the main point. Create categories based on different methods and findings, important themes and theories, seminal publications and the research they influenced, or research arguments that agree or disagree with your own. Watch for major patterns and trends in the published research you are considering and note any contradictions, inconsistencies, dead ends or unexplained gaps in the body of scholarship, especially if the research reported in your paper can somehow clarify matters, fill gaps or provide new directions. As you compare and assess the scholarship in these ways, you may find that your notes become a kind of rough guide to the path your literature review will follow, so expanding your notes into a working outline will give you a framework to build on as you begin writing in Step 5.

5. Write your literature review. Short as that sentence may be, this is the most difficult part of preparing a literature review for a research paper. A thorough approach to the earlier steps will give you plenty of material to work with, but it is essential to keep two factors firmly in mind: the length the review should be, which might be only a few paragraphs for a short research paper, but several pages for a long one; and the purpose of the review within the research paper, which is to demonstrate how and why the current state of the scholarship in your subject area necessitates your research. Observing length expectations and reminding yourself why you are writing a literature review will help you prevent your review from growing into a long descriptive list and your voice and argument from becoming obscured by the content of the studies you discuss. It is imperative to stay focussed as you tell your readers about your discoveries. Using each paragraph (or subsection if you decide to subdivide the literature review section of your paper) to explore a major idea whether that involves discussing one publication or fifty is far better than moving pedantically from study to study, unless of course a strictly chronological survey of publications is required. Use transitional words and phrases to connect sentences and paragraphs via similarities, differences and developments, and work to maintain a logical line of progressive argumentation. Work also to write clearly and concisely, using a formal prose style, correct grammar and spelling, and effective punctuation that enables reader comprehension by clarifying your meaning. Finally, provide accurate and thorough citations and references for all of the studies you reviewed and any other research you brought to your discussion, and be sure to use the documentation style indicated in the guidelines you are following.

6. Read, edit and revise your literature review both on its own and as part of the entire research paper. Try to clarify your argument and streamline your discussion. Ensure that your literature review concludes in a way that provides a persuasive rationale for the research that follows. Edit your literature review to align it more closely with other parts of your research paper, and edit those other parts in accordance with your literature review. Correct all errors in data, typing, grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting, and provide definitions or explanations of potentially unclear elements such as theoretical terminology and nonstandard abbreviations. Check citations and references – it is all too easy to introduce errors in bibliographical information – and check your wording of summaries and paraphrases for accuracy and unintentional instances of plagiarism. Be sure to use quotation marks and give specific page numbers when you borrow the exact words of others. Finally, a second informed opinion is always valuable, so having a trusted mentor or colleague in your field read your literature review or research paper and offer feedback can be a productive aspect of an effective revising and editing process.

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