Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on Twitter, looking at tweets mentioning the words “literature review”. And what happened isn’t what I expected: I didn’t see that many PhD students talking about the shortcomings of their own reviews. No. As I looked through the tweets, I saw dozens and dozens of undergraduate (and maybe some graduate) students lamenting that they had no idea how to do the literature review they were supposed to finish over the weekend.
First, wow. I didn’t know that university professors were asking that kind of assignment to undergraduates! This seems a bit harsh to me.
Second, I decided to go ahead and create this guide. I’m going to tell you how to finish your “stand alone” literature review (meaning, its an assignment for a college class and that won’t be a part of a thesis or dissertation) as easily, quickly and efficiently as possible. And at the end of this article, you will be able to download a PDF checklist of everything you need to do, with extra advice thrown in for good measure…
So, PhD students, pass your way for today. And come back next week for something more tailored to your expectations.
As for the others, let’s dive in.
0/ Check that you know what a literature review is.
1/ Make sure that you know what’s expected of you.
Did you get an assignment sheet or did you write down the instructions? Can you compare notes with other students in your class? Can you go and ask your teach for more details? Here is a list of things you should check:
- On which topic are you supposed to be doing your review?
- How long should it be?
- How many papers are you supposed to be reviewing?
- What kind of papers are you allowed to include in your review? (Academic journal articles only? Book chapters? Newspaper articles? Blog posts?)
- Do you need to include headings and subheadings?
- Are you supposed to use a specific referencing style?
- When is it due?
2/ Identify keywords around your topic
This is a crucial part that many students don’t know about. This will help you in the next step when you begin searching the literature.
So first, write down your topic. Let me show you with an example:
Role of a compression coil in a Firefly-class ship engine.
Then, identify the important keywords in your topic.
Here it would be “compression coil” and “Firefly-class ship”.
Then, try and think of all possible synonyms and variations on those terms.
Here we could have “compression spring”, “trace compression block”, “03-K64-Firefly”, “Serenity”…
For more info on how to find and use good keywords, have a look here.
3/ Begin your literature search
Usually, you will be able to use two separate resources: your library’s catalogue and bibliographic databases.
You can use your library’s catalogue to find books, DVDs, and other physical materials possessed by your library.
To find electronic materials, you will usually have to use electronic databases.
If you look around your library’s website, you should able to access some of those. If you don’t, ask your uni librarian!
I have a whole rubric on this blog to help you with searching a bibliographic database. So have a look at it if you can.
The gist of it is that you’re going to have to use the keywords you came up with to try and find relevant documents on your subject.
If you have any kind of trouble with his, please do go to your university library and ask for help. This is the very reason why there are reference librarians: to help you with that kind of stuff.
You can also send me a message (click on the “contact me” button on the right of your screen) or leave a comment and I’ll try to help you too.
4/ Read the documents you’ve found and take notes
You don’t have to read everything you’ve found: you need to identify which bits are truly interesting and then read only those. More info on that here.
Then, it’s absolutely crucial that you take thorough notes while reading: this is what’s going to keep you from unintentional plagiarism.
Try and sum up each paper. Keep those questions in mind:
- What does this tell me about my topic?
- What do you know about the author?
- In which context was this text written? (For which public? In which historical / conceptual context?)
- What kind of evidence does the author use? (Statistics? Historical sources? Philosophical arguments?…)
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the argument? Is it convincing?
5/ Decide on the structure of your review
You need to identify a few different themes about your topic.
If I come back to my example, I could have one part about the port compression coil and another about the starboard compression coil.
Or I could have different paragraphs about the different parts of a compression coil.
Or I could look at it from an historical point of view and describe its evolutions throughout the different series issued.
Or you could go first what it does / second how it can go wrong / third how to repair it.
You need to base yourself on the kind of information you found. And then you need to match specific ideas from those documents to the different themes you’ve identified. Try and not lose the references for each idea while doing that!
6/ Time to write
Okay, now all you need to do is to write your review.
It should look something like that:
- Theme 1
- Theme 2
- Theme 3
Your number of themes may vary, but make sure that all your parts are roughly equivalent in length. And don’t forget to write an introduction and a conclusion! I explain more about it over there.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, just write a first draft.
The important thing is that you need to reference each idea with the paper where you found it. Every time. So be super thorough! If you don’t know how to do your references, have a look on your library’s website: they probably have a help section explaining exactly how to do it.
7/ Editing and proofreading
Once you have written your first draft, it’s time to edit.
Re-read it and ask yourself those questions:
- Did you say everything you wanted to say?
- Does your structure make sense?
- Did you express yourself clearly enough?
- Is your paper evenly proportioned?
- Is your tone formal enough for an academic context?
- Did you cite all of the papers you intended to reference?
Make all changes you deem necessary. You can repeat this process several times if need be.
Then, it’s proofreading time! Check that your spell check doesn’t underline anything in red. Re-read yourself slowly (you can even print your paper to re-read it, you might see things that you didn’t see on screen!).
If you can, ask someone else to proofread your paper too. But do it yourself first, as a courtesy!
8/ Hand it out!
You’re done! Congratulations!
But first, you might want to have a look at the check-list I compiled for you. It will point at all the things you should check before handing out your paper.
If you encounter any problem while doing your review, leave a comment below. I will try and help you sorting it out!
Good luck! :)
The image above has been created using a picture by henningbulka (cc by-nc-sa 2.0).