A global network of researchers

3 questions to ask before writing a literature review

By AuthorAID Team | Nov. 28, 2017  | Research writing Research skills

In this post, Dr Ross Jansen-van Vuuren highlights three important points that researchers should consider if they are planning to publish a literature review. 

A literature review is a critical analysis or summary of the research that has been published in a particular area. Unsurprisingly, writing a literature review is extremely time-consuming and requires a lot of careful planning. Based on my own experience, I believe there are three vital questions to ask yourself during the planning stages of your literature review:

1. What else has been published on your research topic?

Before you start writing, it is essential to invest time and energy into mapping out all of the existing published literature reviews that have been done on your research topic. It is only once you have done this that you can decide how to approach your own literature review: will you address your chosen research topic in broad terms, or simply focus on one small, niche area within the wider topic?

It’s important to be aware that reviewing the literature in broad terms will be more time-intensive for you. You are more likely to find yourself researching unfamiliar (and possibly uninteresting) articles, which may reduce your motivation.

Plus, if no reviews on your topic have been published within the last five years or so (or at all!), then you should aim to publish your review fairly quickly, as there is strong chance that another research group may have had the same idea as you.

2. How many co-authors will you have?

As a general rule of thumb, the more authors that you collaborate with, the less time it will take to complete your literature review (since each author can write the different components at the same time). However, multiple authors can make the process more complicated. For instance, different researchers may have very different writing styles – and they may also have different expectations, which can cause tensions and unnecessary delays.

Carefully weigh up the pros and cons of working with other authors before you begin – which researchers are best placed to collaborate with you, and which researchers may hinder your progress?

3. How do you plan to organize your findings?

Synthesizing the jumble of research information into a coherent literature review is usually the most overwhelming part of the process. There are several different approaches to organizing and presenting your findings. Below, I expand on a helpful list included in Professor Gastel’s presentation:

  • Chronological: This involves placing the content in historical order. It is useful to do this (even if it doesn’t form the sole focus of the review), as it provides the reader with the historical context for the research area. It could even be illustrated through a diagram or chart – you do not necessarily have to write it out.
  • From general to specific: This involves starting out with a general overview and then gradually shifting to more detailed areas within the broader topic. This is closely related to the first approach, as it enables the reader to understand how the topic fits within the ‘bigger picture’. 
  • By theory: This may focus on: (a) approaches taken, (b) materials used, or (c) a general theme. I have summarized how these can be applied below, with some examples:
  1. Approaches taken: This involves critically analyzing several different approaches that have been taken to reach a certain objective. For example, Ho et al. (2017) analyzed the ways in which ponds used for waste stabilization can be designed. Locating the different groups researching the particular topic geographically may be a helpful starting point.
  2. Materials used: If your line of work involves the use of, or synthesis of, a range of materials (or living organisms) for a specific function, you may need to review or explain how the different materials can be grouped. For example, Vijay et al. (2017) describe the types of bacteria used in self-healing concrete for building, while Mahmood (2016) analyses a range of different dyes that have been used in dye-sensitized solar cells.
  3. General themes: This provides an overview of a certain topic, typically highlighting different angles, ideas, opinions and resources that have been developed by researchers in the field. For example, in this paper my colleagues and I (2013) gave a general overview of what has been done to help connect resources and people from developed countries with researchers in developing countries.

One single approach may form the focus of your review, or you may choose to integrate more than one approach in your paper. For example, this review on new imaging technologies considers the history of a particular area of materials science (i.e. an initial chronological focus) before outlining the four main approaches that have been taken in this area over the past three decades.

Finally, the process of writing (and publishing) a literature review is very rewarding: you are creating a piece of history and empowering yourself!


Dr Ross Jansen-van Vuuren obtained his PhD degree in 2012 from the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia. He then spent eight months investigating ways that tertiary educators based in developed countries could partner with and share resources with scientists based in developing countries, before commencing a postdoctoral fellowship at UQ. Ross has since moved to Canada, where he has taken up a position as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Dr Philip Jessop at Queen’s University. See his publications here.


blog comments powered by Disqus