How to Write a Literature Review?

Before You Start

This is one of the frequently asked questions by my students and my colleagues and I go straight to the answer with my famous answers which are actually questions and the answer to these questions will tell you how to write a literature review:

Who is going to write the review?

Is it you, a team of authors, or are you asking an external review writing consultancy services to write it for you? The answer to this question is important because it guides the planning stage.

What is the review about?

The topic or subject of the review should be specified. It might be too broad and so you will be dealing with lots of literature or it might be too narrow so it will be very hard to find the relevant literature.

Why do you write this review?

Is it a coursework or a paper for publication or presentation or it is for a blog or podcast? Is it a standalone work or is it part of the bigger plant such as a work package for research or a chapter in dissertation? Depending on the purpose your plan may change.

How much time do you have to write the review?

The timing is the key because it definitely affects the quantity and quality of your work. It is always advised to plan ahead.

Where do you want to publish or present or submit the review?

If you plan to deliver it to someone else, who are they? Is it an organisation or a journal? Are they following a certain style or guidelines for writing the review and do they present any example? Again it is important to know the destination so you don’t have to fit a square peg in a round hole.

What’s the length, format, and type of the review?

You need to know if there are work limitations or formatting standards to follow. And finally you need to know the type of your review because we do have over 51 types of literature reviews. When people talk about ‘literature review’ they usually mean the most traditional type of review which is ‘narrative review’.’

How the quality of this review is going to be?

Do you want high quality work to be presented as academic work and shine in your resume for the rest of your career and life or are you looking for something ‘good enough’ to be submitted and get you a mark for a course. The answer makes a huge difference because by publishing an academic work it will become part of your professional reputation.

Resources

You have three types of resources to juggle and I call it Resources Triangle:

  1. Money: with money you can hire consultancy services and pay a freelance professional to write your review. It is usually easy and does not require any legal contract however ethically, you should acknowledge the writer in the final product unless you agree otherwise. If so, you become a ‘guest author’ and the original writer stays a ‘ghost author’. Although controversial, it is usually accepted by many consultants. If you don’t have money, do you have people or time instead.
  2. Human Resources: you may have a team or fiends or students who can help you with writing or it could be you on your own. It is important to know who you have and for how long so you could plan timewise. Working with a team it is important to decide about the amount of contribution from the beginning until end so when the work is done you know everyone’s contribution and the order in which everyone’s name should appear on the final work. You also need to know how skilled they are, in particular are they fluent in using any computer programs? If you need human resources can you hire them?
  3. Time: How much time do you have and can you make time by adding people or spending money.

These three resources are totally connected and balance each other. For example if you have enough time, you can write a review gradually and at less cost with less human resources. If you don’t have time, then you may buy some other people’s time so they write the review for you.

Planning

Step 1: Choose a review type

Depending on your purpose, you may choose one of over 51 types of literature reviews and follow their steps. Otherwise if you choose to go with a traditional and narrative review then you can follow the next steps.

Step 2: Choose a topic for your review

Start with a topic of interest and look around the internet for half another. See if there’s anything in Wikipedia or any other recent review papers relevant to the topic. For example if you are working on a review about machine learning in neurology, you may find the paper about machine learning in cardiology. It is important to see similar topics and similar reviews because you can follow their footsteps in structure and content.

Step 3: Outline the topic of your review

Draw a map of the topic and its subtopics to allow structuring your paper. For example, if you are wiring about treatments of migraine, you can start with what is migraine and how it starts and then move to possible suggested treatments pathways. You can classify the treatment based on each pathway or classify them in categories such as psychotherapies, pharmacotherapies, and allied and alternative medicine. You can continue comparing them in a table or list the most recent systematic reviews about their effectiveness in a table. Finally you can have another section on the most recent ongoing promises or finish with current clinical practice referring or citing the clinical practice guidelines.

Step 4: Determine the amount of text/references per review section

You have no choice but to have a stop point otherwise your excitement and enthusiasm will drain your time and energy. For example, specify that you will have one or two or three paragraphs per subtopic and each paragraph is going to have two-three references. Of course you need to run searches to find the relevant literature. It is not a rule. For example, one paragraph will be enough for your last section which is usually the conclusion.

Step 5: Make the order and content of the review logical and connected

See if the structure of your writing makes sense. Are the paragraphs connected in a way that it is easy to follow and read? If this writing was someone else’s what would be your opinion on improving it? Is it boring or interesting?

Step 6: Choose a writing style for your review

Are you going to summarise the most recent literature? Or are you trying to critically appraise a topic or an idea? Or otherwise you care about the pros and cons on a topic or idea?

Step 7: Leave the review aside for one or two weeks

When you spend too much time on your writing you probably cannot see the points to improve or mistakes. If you leave your writing aside for a while it gives you the chance so when you return to it later you can see new things, you will have new insights and new ideas.

Step 8: Ask for independent view on your review

Although not always possible, it is always good to ask for an independent view from someone else. You can do this alongside the previous step to save time.

Last words

I know this is not a perfect guide on how to write a literature review but it is general and easy enough to help you start your review.

Good news

1. If you don’t like to comment and share your ideas or questions, you can contact us instead.

2. I will update this blog again based on your feedback.

Systematic reviews for informed decision making: From shopping to healthcare research

Knowledge is power BUT either you are shopping online or you are working on a research project in your university/company, knowledge is not easy to find or cheap to gain.

If you have tried to purchase a product and spent hours if not days and months doing ‘research’, you’d know what we mean. Here by ‘re-search’ you usually mean ‘search’ and ‘search again’.

Since commercial companies are aware of your efforts, they usually try to bombard you with ‘selective’, ‘wrong’, ‘ambiguous’, or ‘incomplete’ information so as a judge what would you do when one says [in their heart and mind]:

I Swear NOT to Tell the Truth, Tell Part of the Truth and Mix It with Lies

Well, your decision making will be ‘biased’ towards what they want. That’s why you try to be ‘systematic’ before buying a product:

  • You search multiple websites;
  • You read customer reviews;
  • You check five-star ratings;
  • You compare the features and prices;
  • You check the guarantee, return/refund policy;
  • You ask your colleagues, friends and families, and considering all these information …
  • You finally decide to drink a cuppa coffee/tea, give it a time and buy the product 60% off in Boxing day!

Don’t be surprised if I tell you that you can follow a career in research and you will find all the shopping steps to be similar to a medical research/literature review!

When as university, you usually are being asked to do coursework which is kind of ‘research’ but not the rigor kind so you usually don’t dare to publish it or share it publicly. Later, when you start a career, you are still looking for the knowledge to make good or informed decisions. Even if you become a policy maker, these research will never stop because knowledge is power.

What makes the process of this ‘systematic’ re-search difficult is that first, you do not have time and second even if you have time you do not have the skills to run a proper and comprehensive research on existing knowledge or even existing ignorance [fear of unknown]!

If you miss a relevant work in your research, you can end up with re-inventing the wheel if you are lucky or a rectangle wheel if you are less lucky or be accused of stealing someone else’s wheel and that’s bad luck! Why leave it to luck if there is a way to get it right?

Systematic reviews start with a well-written question followed by systematic search in multiple resources seems to be the the best tool you ever had to collect and analyse all the relevant information to make an informed decision. However, since systematic reviewing can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process, there are at least 48 types of literature reviews with some ‘systematic’ elements embedded in them. Yesterday, we discovered 49th type! Each type of literature review fits a certain purpose so don’t you dare to think the literature reviews are only ‘narrative’ or ‘systematic’. Such classification has unforgivable consequences including time and money waste if not lives.

This is just an introductory blog, we will write more soon