how to write a literature review?

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Full Member
Apr 15, 2012
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Hi all,

I've recently met with a hospital-based Respirologist/Pulmonologist and he agreed to take me on to do a literature review for pulmonology. I'm fairly new to the field (I'm a third year biology student) and had only taken one 3rd year general physiology course as by background. Can you experts out there give me insight into how I should conduct a literature review and what types of book/literature I should be reading to write one?

Thanks in advance. =D


Full Member
Jul 27, 2010
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A literature review is a structured account of a topic area that lays the foundation for a research effort. It must be comprehensive, current and lucid. Of most importance it must be critical, meaning that YOU must add comment or explanation to what you have found - in short a review is not a recitation of what has been found but and exposition of it.

It follows that from a structural point of view you need a themed list of sub-topics using headings, subheading, paragraphs, bullets, tables, diagrams and so on in order to get a coherent and lucid discourse on your chosen subject area. This is not a trivial matter and you must expect to go over it many, many times before it is completed.

If you are new to an area or even if you are experienced my starting point would be to find out which 'ordinary' text books are usually recommended for this area. This might mean going right back to basics but don't shirk this because any weakness in the basics will be magnified later on. Once you have mastered this level then you are ready to move on to Journals or other kinds of primary sources.

A second element of huge importance is that when you are building your review make absolutely sure you have completely absorbed the context of any writing you cite so that you can be sure you have understood and anchored your understanding in what was being said and why it was said - be careful, if you miss this aspect you may end up shipwrecked and your career in research with it because it sadly often points to laziness in research.

A Simple Literature Review Checklist
In summary, the review is about your topic area and about you becoming sufficiently expert in it to deal with the presenting problem that you have uncovered. The intention is for you to offer a discourse that is Focused, Relevant, Authored, Measured, Evaluatory and expressed as a Dialogue. (Notice the acronym FRAMED)

Focused – this means that your whole effort is focused on the topic area and the particular aspect of it that you are pursuing. So do not be tempted to add in other things just because they might be useful, interesting, and novel or you just have nothing else to say.

Relevant – any topic area aspect will itself represent a large body of knowledge and so you must continually ask if a particular element in the knowledge domain is relevant to your particular study.

Authored - any literature review is to be written by its author. This sounds obvious but it is all too easy to fill up a review with cited quotations, paraphrases and summaries so that the ‘hand' of the review author is not evident anywhere in the work. When this happens it is not an evaluative review at all but simple plagiarism. The author's ‘hand' must guide and direct the review in an evaluatory fashion so that the review is a message from the review author and not a recitation of what has been found elsewhere. Typically this is done by using your own skills and knowledge to introduce, comment, add to, modify and extrapolate from various primary sources available. However, this anchoring in the texts you have found brings us back to ensuring your are also anchored in the context of the works you have found.

Measured – this is a matter of selecting and using the focused and relevant materials that you have found. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to pack in information in excruciatingly detail and so end up with a laboured entry that treats your readers as if they were completely ignorant of the subject area. So you need to ask honestly "is the entry a measured response to the readers information needs?"

Evaluatory – authors sift through the primary sources looking for materials to use. The essence of this sifting is an evaluatory outlook based on an awareness of your problem theme, your topic area and your own ideas. Care is needed because this process is not about searching for materials that you agree with or like in some way. Instead it is a contextualised response (based on what you already know) and that may mean you find materials that are new to you, materials that make you change your own knowledge base and even materials that completely replace what you previously thought of as solid.

Dialogue – a review is a form of argument. Good arguments are based on a strong theme and try to explain to, and convince your readers about something. So it is best if you think of it as a kind of dialogue in which you challenge them about your review theme and content.
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Volunteer Staff
15+ Year Member
Feb 2, 2004
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I generally advise caution when students ask about literature reviews. In many journals these are not accepted unsolicited - meaning they usually know who the leaders are in the field and the journals asks the physician to write a review and gives them the topic.

If you are looking at publishing this in a general practitioners journal, I would email them first to see if they are interested in the topic and would accept the article for review.

I would hate for you to spend a good amount of time on the manuscript and not find a journal that will accept it.