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Undertaking a Literature Review


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Title: Undertaking a Literature Review

Undertaking a Literature Review
  • David Parkinson

What is a Review?
  • According to Cooper (1988) '... a literature
    review uses as its database reports of primary or
    original scholarship, and does not report new
    primary scholarship itself... The types of
    scholarship may be empirical, theoretical,
    critical/analytic, or methodological in nature.
    Secondly a literature review seeks to describe,
    summarise, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the
    content of primary reports.'

Why do a Review?
  • The Philosopher Rumsfeld once said
  • Now what is the message there? The message is
    that there are known "knowns." There are things
    we know that we know. There are known unknowns.
    That is to say there are things that we now know
    we don't know. But there are also unknown
    unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't
    know. So when we do the best we can and we pull
    all this information together, and we then say
    well that's basically what we see as the
    situation, that is really only the known knowns
    and the known unknowns. And each year, we
    discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.
  • (Press Conference at NATO Headquarters,
    Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 2002)

Why do a Review?
  • Know what to do (before starting research)
  • to identify gaps in the literature
  • Know where to start (starting)
  • to carry on from where others have already
    reached, or position your project relative to
    previous work
  • to identify information, methods and ideas that
    may be relevant to your project (i.e. avoid
    reinventing the wheel)
  • Know what you have done (finishing)
  • to increase your breadth of knowledge of your
    subject area
  • to put your work into perspective
  • Other
  • to identify opposing views
  • to identify other people working in the same

  • Specifying
  • formulating the problem
  • Searching
  • collecting the data
  • Collating
  • evaluating the data
  • Analysing
  • interpretation of the data
  • Writing
  • presentation of results

1. Specifying the Review
  • Topic
  • What subject will the review cover
  • Type of Review
  • Integrative, Theoretical, Methodological
  • Breadth of Review
  • The range of subjects that are covered
  • Depth of Review
  • The amount of detail that it goes into

  • Should be the easiest step, but remember
  • Doesnt need to be too specific
  • Has to be a subject covered in the literature
  • Be prepared to make (minor) alterations to the
    scope of the review as it proceeds

Types of Review
  • Integrative
  • Drawing conclusions from many separate studies
  • Theoretical
  • Present different theories to explain a certain
    phenomenon, comparing breadth, consistency and
  • Methodological
  • Examine research methods that have been applied
    to a particular problem. Often critical, arguing
    that results may be artificial

  • Try to outline your review in advance
  • Break down the topic into subheadings
  • A Realistic Cosmological Model Based on
    Observations and Some Theory Developed over the
    Last 90 Years by Burbidge
  • Introduction
  • The Beginning 1915-1936
  • The 1940s
  • The 1950s onwards
  • Active galaxies as the most likely site of
  • Energetics
  • Quasi-stellar objects
  • Dark matter
  • Acceleration in the Universe
  • Summary
  • Conclusion

Breadth and depth
  • Need to specify the level of detail and the span
    of the survey
  • If the survey is too broad and too detailed, it
    may never be completed
  • Need to decide what sources to use (journals,
    books etc)
  • Be prepared to be dynamic
  • Change the scope of the review depending on the
    literature and your own constraints

  • How do I know when I have done enough?
  • If new papers keep appearing, it might be a good
    idea to ignore them. Limit yourself to when you
    started writing, unless something really
    important appears.
  • More than 10 pages, but less than 50.
  • How much background/historical material do I
  • Think of the audience (it might be you!)
  • Historical papers are only needed to introduce
    new or unfamiliar concepts, so rarely necessary
    (most modern papers on gravity do not cite Newton
    or Einstein for example).

2. Searching
  • Informal channels
  • Yourself, friends, colleagues, conferences
  • Primary channels
  • Books, review articles (but remember, dont
  • Secondary sources
  • Bibliographies, abstract archives
  • Bad sources of information (dont use, or use
  • Google, wikipedia

Web of Knowledge
APA PsycNet
The Library
Search Terms
  • Standard search terms include
  • Title
  • Author
  • Abstract
  • Keywords
  • Every search engine will have different syntax
  • Use Boolean operators (AND, OR etc)
  • Some search engines have online tutorials to
    teach you how to use them

Search Process
  • Start with some relevant source
  • Find all references
  • Screen papers, selecting only those which are
    relevant and of high quality
  • Repeat steps 1-3 multiple times, building up a
    bibliographic source list
  • Remember to change the scope/detail of review,
    depending on literature that appears during

Finding papers
  • Some papers may not be available from the online
    archives. If so
  • Google for it
  • The Library
  • Inter-Library Loan
  • Email the author
  • Ask someone who may have it, or access to it

Scanning vs. Reading
  • Dont read through every paper you come across -
    it takes too long!
  • Instead scan through papers quickly, then
    identify essential reading
  • Keep a bibliographic record of every paper, book
    or website you use (either using paper or
    bibliographic software)

Reference management software
  • There is a host of software available for helping
    find, and keep note of your references (and
    perhaps even the papers themselves e.g. Papers)
  • Some will link to one or more bibliographic
    database (such as the arXiv, PubMed, U.S. Library
    of Congress etc)
  • Others contribute to a community database, a kind
    of social bookmarking (such as BibSonomy,
    CiteULike, or Connotea).
  • Beware, these will only be as good as the people
    using them
  • Know what software you will be using to write in
    choosing your bibliographic tool

3. Collating
  • Critical analysis of available literature
  • Practical (Is it going to be useful?)
  • Is it in a language I can read?
  • Is it from the area I am reviewing?
  • It is from a peer-reviewed Journal I respect?
  • Quality (Is it any good?)
  • Did the authors sample the population fairly?
  • Did they treat the errors consistently and well?

The Citations Fallacy
  • Can we judge how important a paper is by the
    number of citations it has?
  • A paper that creates a new subject area, or makes
    important progress in that area is likely to be
    cited a lot, however
  • Many important papers are rarely cited, but that
    doesnt mean they are not important
  • Many wrong papers are cited by people trying to
    disprove them (but that doesnt mean the paper is
    not important)
  • A paper may be highly cited because the author is
    working in a fashionable area, and has a lot of
  • So citations are not necessarily measure of

4. Analysing
  • What does the data actually tell us?
  • How does it apply to the topic of the review?
  • What conclusions can we draw?
  • Are there any major disagreements between
    different sources/studies?

  • Many studies have a small data set (population),
    or data with low constraining power
  • To get around this, it is common for reviews to
    contain some element of meta-analysis, bringing
    together the different studies and making some
    overall conclusions.
  • Be very careful when doing this, as different
    authors may treat the errors differently.
  • A good meta-analysis of bad studies will still
    give bad results. Sometimes the best conclusion
    will be that nothing can be concluded.

5. Writing
  • Introduction
  • Define topic, also parameters/terms
  • Body, where the review proceeds
  • Chronologically
  • Thematically
  • Methodologically
  • Conclusions
  • Include future questions to be answered

Writing Hints
  • Dont confuse a literature review with an
    annotated bibliography discuss themes,
    referencing many sources simultaneously
  • Likely to be read by a wider audience than a
    highly technical paper, so jargon and specialized
    abbreviations should be avoided or carefully
  • Dont make a statement without a reference
    (unless it is obvious or trivial)
  • Include a bibliography (!)

Referencing BibTex vs. EndNote
  • BibTex is best if you are already familiar with
    LaTeX, as the interface is similar.
  • There is graphical software to help you
  • EndNote is best if you will be writing you papers
    using Word/Open Office etc
  • Though EndNote libraries can be turned into
    BibTex files

  • BibTex allows you to store references as an
    external file, and make citations in your own
  • The papers are stored in a .bib file with the
    following format
  • Many journals have their own BibTex style files
    (for example American Physical Society apsrev.bst)

_at_articlegreenwade93, author "George D.
Greenwade", title "The Comprehensive
Tex Archive Network (CTAN)", year
"1993", journal "TUGBoat", volume
"14", number "3", pages
BibTeX Packages
  • Natbib is a reimplementation of the LaTeX \cite
    command, which allows for textual (\citet) or
    parenthetical (\citep)citation

\citetjon90 --gt Jones et al. (1990)
\citetchap. 2jon90 --gt Jones et al. (1990,
chap. 2) \citepjon90 --gt (Jones et al.,
1990) \citepchap. 2jon90 --gt (Jones et al.,
1990, chap. 2) \citepseejon90 --gt (see
Jones et al., 1990) \citepseechap.
2jon90 --gt (see Jones et al., 1990, chap. 2)
\citetjon90 --gt Jones, Baker, and Williams
(1990) \citepjon90 --gt (Jones, Baker, and
Williams, 1990)
  • The purpose of a review is not just to find what
    is in the literature, but also to draw
    conclusions from it. Have this in mind from the
  • Be as thorough as you can, bearing your
    constraints in mind
  • Be flexible, changing the scope of your review,
    or the amount of detail that you cover, as the
    review proceeds

  • Conducting Research Literature Reviews, Arlene
    Fink, 1998, Sage Publications
  • The Integrative Research Review - a systematic
    approach, Harris M. Cooper, 1984, Sage
  • How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by
    Robert A. Day and Barbara Gastel
  • Performing a Literature Review, Lois E. Reed,
  • natbib reference sheet http//merkel.zoneo.net/Lat
  • Prizes have been awarded for Scientific
    Reviewing, http//www.nasonline.org/site/PageServe
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