A scientific literature review article provides a thorough overview of the current knowledge on a certain topic. The main goal is to consider the difficulties or knowledge gaps in the field and help to fill them out. To write one requires lots of reading, but it can be an intensely satisfying process and produce a work that will be referenced and serve as a resource for students and young researchers.
Unlike an original research article, a literature review usually does not present results, such as from surveys or experiments. It’s mainly based on the combination of a thorough literature survey of published work together with the author’s critical discussion on the subject. There are different types of literature reviews, like systematic, scoping, and conceptual, but overall, they’re all extremely valuable and useful for the scientific community, in their own way.
The eight steps below will give a simple how on writing a review. First, let’s quickly touch on the why.
Why to write a scientific literature review
There are plenty of reasons to take on the task of writing a review rather than conducting novel research.
First, as a review’s author, you can improve your knowledge of the theme and be on top of the recent findings. You can start to more closely follow the work of leading researchers and get new insights for your own research. And you position yourself as a thought-leader and knowledge-leader in the area. For an up-and-coming area, this is extremely useful.
For example, this 2019 review of the remote work literature by Charalampous et al. has been very valuable to me as I work on my own research in the area. I’ve connected with the lead author on ResearchGate. and I value our interaction.
If you’re a master’s or PhD candidate, by writing a review you’ll be producing starting material to be used on your dissertation or thesis, not to mention, obviously, that you’ll learn about the review-writing process.
And as mentioned, a good literature review article garners recognition and a considerable number of citations.
Reviews are the mark of a true scholar.
One final note on the why before the how regarding reviews
Research studies can be classified as qualitative or quantitative and whether your literature review is focused on one of these classes or the other will have an influence on its design.
The following tips below generally fit both types of articles, although adaptations can be made in specific topics.
8 TIPS on how to write a scientific literature review (and a good one)
These tips don’t necessarily need to follow the exact order. Reviews can be iterative, and you’ll naturally happen across new references. So you may cycle back and iterate.
1. Define a relevant question or questions that you intend to answer with the review (critical step!)
That will be your scope. Importantly, keep lists of topics that are and are not within your scope. This will help to determine what you’ll ultimately include in your initial survey.
2. Do a literature survey
Search for articles on the theme using appropriate keywords (research terms) and filters.
Include keywords associated with concepts or variables of your interest and also list synonyms or related terms.
For example, let’s say you want to write about drug abuse among college students. You can use the keywords “drug abuse”, “substance abuse”, “college students”, “university students”, “undergraduate students”.
You can add filters to select for articles in a specific language (e.g., English or Spanish) or that have been published recently (e.g., last 5 years), for example.
As we see with “college” and “university”, there are commonly different ways to say the same thing, and Boolean operators will help you here. Specifics are given below.
You can do the search directly on publishers’ and journals’ websites, on the reference lists of relevant papers, and using.
For these databases, ideally, you’ll have a good online library to use. There are also ways to find research articles for free.
You can choose from multidisciplinary sources (e.g., Google Scholar, Scopus, Web of Science), or sources specific for a given area (e.g., Open Edition for social sciences, PubMed for biomedical sciences).
To complement the review, look for materials other than research articles by visiting government websites, international organization websites, and credible newspaper articles.
However you do your search, keep the following in mind:
- Check that there are no similar recent reviews addressing the very same question. Otherwise, there’s obviously no point in going further unless you’re taking a different angle.
- Consider if there’s enough research material to write about. Available literature can vary significantly from topic to topic. Try to examine if there are sufficient articles to make a robust discussion, to contrast results and ideas, or to make any conclusion. If there is no previous literature review on the subject, even a small number of papers may be OK. If other reviews have already been published, investigate what else has emerged since it was released.
- If your survey results in too many articles, narrow it down by adding new keywords or filters that match the specifications you consider most important. Look for topics that haven’t yet been thoroughly reviewed or for which there are conflicting data worth of discussion.
- Use Boolean operators (“AND”, “OR”, “NOT”, etc.) together with the keywords to filter the results. Let’s take the same example on drug abuse among college students and imagine you don’t want alcohol to be included as a type of drug abuse in your search. In this case, you can combine keywords and operators this way: “drug abuse” OR “substance abuse” AND “college students” NOT alcohol.
3. Create a datasheet to organize all the important information contained on each material collected
Do a first selection of the articles by reading their titles and abstracts. If that doesn’t provide enough information for you, read the results and conclusions. There’s usually no need to get into the introduction or methods until later.
Eliminate works that don’t match the scope of the review. Then, organize the final data in a way to facilitate the writing process later on.
A based way to do this is using an Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet. The rows represent each article and columns representing important groups of information such as authors, year of publication, methodology, main findings, etc.
Even better can be to use referencing software such as Mendeley to label and organize the works you download.
4. Define a structure for the text
Although a literature review’s structure may vary based on journal guidelines and your preferences, it should at least contain a title, keywords, abstract, introduction, main text, discussion, conclusion, and references.
If you’re working on a systematic review, you can add a Methods section to describe the criteria you’ve used to select articles to review. You may also end the review with Future Perspectives for the field, considering your knowledge on the theme.
At this point, you can start considering journals for submission.
Carefully read the instructions for authors and formatting requirements of the journal you choose. Not all journals accept review articles, but there are some journals exclusively dedicated to them.
If publication time is important for you, check the journal or inquire directly to find the normal time to publication.
5. Add context to your work
Start by creating an introduction, ideally not too long, addressing the main concepts and the current state of the field.
Call attention to the relevance of the theme and make clear why a review is needed and how it can be helpful. Then specify the goals of the review and what exactly the reader will find in your text.
If you are doing a more rigorous review, mention data sources and research methods used to select articles and define inclusion and exclusion criteria.
See this systematic literature review about social media and mental health problems in adolescents.
Note that already in the introduction the authors explore the scenario of mental health in adolescents, explain the concept of social media and contextualize what is known and what are the gaps regarding the relationship between social media and mental health problems in adolescents.
As a rigorous systematic literature review, a Methods section gives full details on how the survey was conducted.
6. Extract relevant information from the literature material you selected
In the main text, write about the articles’ findings, including the methods and parameters used. Does this especially if your review is focused on quantitative studies.
When dealing with qualitative studies, you may present the sampling methods applied.
Extract enough information to answer your research questions. You can group articles with similar characteristics and split the text on subheadings accordingly.
You also have the option to mention articles chronologically, if that’s relevant to the work.
Remember to summarize information so the text is objective and clear. You can work with appropriate graphical schemes, images, and tables – these can help the reader to better understand and memorize the important information.
See this literature review on the detection of depression and mental illness signs using social media. The authors divided the main text into subtopics according to the methods used by the analyzed articles to detect signs of mental illness.
A figure is provided to illustrate each method and the number of articles that used it. The review also presents a table summarizing important information of the articles.
7. Add critical discussion
Include your point of view and indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the works you wrote about. Address debate on conflicting results, when necessary.
This fits interestingly into the discussion of contrasting concepts, theories and assumptions presented in different qualitative studies, for instance. Also, recognize the limitations of your own work.
Provide the main conclusion of your literature review. In this final section of the review, it may be interesting to make suggestions for future research.
See this review about the associations of maternal nutrition and breast-milk composition. In the subheadings of the main text (“Main results” section), the authors discuss the results of the articles investigated and emphasize conflicting information among studies.
A final discussion is provided addressing the limitations of the studies. The main conclusions obtained from the literature review are presented in the final paragraph.
See this review about maternal obesity and breast-feeding characteristics. The authors present the findings of their literature survey and a “Discussion” section with explanations and possible confounding factors involved.
An individual topic is dedicated to the limitations of their review (for example, the authors say that “9 of the 18 studies included used self-reported maternal weight and height. Such estimates are not completely accurate with the possible risk of misclassification of BMI categories” [Turcksin et al., 2014, p. 180). Special sections approaching the implications of their findings for future research and for clinical practice are also provided.
8. Make sure the English is sharp, clear, and well-edited
Check for spelling and grammar mistakes and add all the references correctly. Use reference management software to avoid wasting time with formatting. There are free and user-friendly options to do so (e.g., Zotero, Mendeley).
Good luck with your review!
Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 24(2):218i234.
Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2):91-108.
Turcksin, R., Bel, S., Galjaard, S., & Devlieger, R. (2014). Maternal obesity and breastfeeding intention, initiation, intensity and duration: a systematic review. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 10(2), 166-183. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8709.2012.00439.x
Wee, B. V., & Banister, D. (2016). How to write a literature review paper? Transport Reviews, 36(2), 278-288.