Literature reviews can save you from re-discovering information that has already been explored and communicated. It helps you to formulate your own hypothesis and discover new methods to better design your experiments. Additionally, literature reviews can show you the relationship between your and others’ scientific questions and hypotheses. Examples of literature reviews can be found here.
Therefore, learning how to find and read literature reviews is an essential and beneficial skill set for new and experienced graduate students.
How to Find Literature Reviews
The first step in finding literature reviews is to identify which topics are interesting and relevant to your research. Topics can be easily identified when you know your area of interest and all the key issues. Therefore, when you choose your topic, break it apart into multiple aspects and make a list of keywords that will help you develop your search strings.
Next, search the literature using these keywords to find what scholars are communicating about your topic. One can find a number of reviews in a variety of places both on and offline. Try visiting your institution’s library as the first resource for literature, including relevant books, theses, published papers and sometimes good reviews. Additionally, a variety of disciplines have dedicated search engines for literature, including Big Brain for neuroscience or PsychInfo for psychology. Alternatively, there are many online databases such as Pubmed or Cochrane Library that hold easily accessible journal articles. Online databases can prove helpful as well since you can take advantage of advanced search options to limit your search for only literature review articles.
When searching these resources, keep an eye out for the following useful types of reviews:
● Peer-reviewed articles: Most journal articles are peer-reviewed and contain very brief reviews in their introduction or discussion sections. When trying to search through a number of papers, read the abstracts to determine how relevant those are to your interests. Keywords can be very helpful here.
● Dissertation and theses: Detailed literature reviews are typically found right in their introductions. If not, then check under the following headings: Background, Overview or Review of the Literature.
● Bibliographies of relevant papers: When you find a relevant paper, check the cited papers to discover additional interesting papers. Also, start searching your resources to identify additional papers from the same author.
And remember, do keep a record of all the keywords, methodologies and strategies that you used while searching literature. A well-organized search can produce excellent reviews.
During your literature search, you will come across a swath of papers and may be overwhelmed by the information. If so, you may find yourself in one of the following two possibilities: 1) You find nothing relevant. One solution could be to modify your search strings and be flexible with your parameters. 2) Your keywords and strings are appropriate, but somehow all papers seem relevant to your topic. In the next section, we will go over how to read literature reviews, including remaining critical and well-organized, to find the relevant information.
How to Read a Literature Review
Now that you have collected a number of papers on your particular topic, here are some tips that will help you efficiently and effectively sort through all this information.
Find crystal-clear statements relevant to your topic in your body of literature. A well-written review will present a clear overview of the topic under investigation. For each review, you must find out whether the addressed research is directly relevant to your topic of interest. If the review fails to explicitly state a question then it may not be a good review to use as ‘fuzzy questions produce fuzzy answers.’
Always look for reviews that clearly report the methods used. If the reviewer does not report the methodology for how they filtered the primary studies, it may be an indication that the review is lacking in scientific rigor. Readers should be suspicious of reviews and studies that solely focus on results rather than methods. Unfortunately, good quality journals can produce poor quality work due to a focus on results rather than methodologies. A preference for publishing work that gives positive outcomes despite flawed methods is a prime example. To avoid these reviews, one must think critically about the data being displayed and how others have discussed the results.
Look for reviews that comprehensively cover the addressed research topic. While no single review can capture all the information on a particular topic, you should make sure that the information presented is relevant and accurate. Depending on the type of review, look for the search strategy, if available. Search strategies can include keywords and search parameters, much like the list you created when starting your own literature review. In addition, see if their search methodology only highlights literature that supports their argument, and completely avoids studies that contradict their point of view. A good author should discuss all opposing and supporting arguments. Finally, always make sure to check funding sources as some reviews may preferentially highlight work performed at one particular institution.
Overall, updated literature reviews will always be a needed aspect for the scientific community. As scientists continue to discover more information, literature reviews are critical in summarizing what is known and can save time when one can’t sift through many individual papers. Nothing is better than finding a well-documented literature review if you need a relevant summary for a particular topic. As science will never cease to evolve, learning how to perform a literature review is an important skill to hone early in your graduate career.
Purdue Libraries. Literature Reviews: How to find and do them (YouTube)
AIT Library. Literature Review Guide: Examples of Literature Reviews
Library - American Public University System: What is a scholarly literature review? How can I find one?
UCLA Library. Mapping Your Research Ideas (YouTube)
Robert Maier.H. What constitutes a good literature review and why does quality matter?
Andrew D. Oxman, Gordon H. Guyatt. Guidelines for reading literature reviews
Georgia State University Library: Literature Reviews: 4. Read and Analyze the Literature
About the Author
Khola Abid is in her third year of PharmD at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan. She is interested in the history and development of science. In her institution, she runs a team of young science communicators that designs highly cost-effective experiments to thereby communicate various physiological mechanisms to school-aged children. She loves to defy norms, but with a sense of sagaciousness. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading history and self-help genres.