How to write a compelling literature review

November 30, 2016

How can you make your literature review interesting to read?

To answer this, first let's look at how not to do it.

A lot of lit reviews simply consist of a series of summaries of individual papers, with each paragraph starting with the name of the author.

Brown et al conducted a mixed methods study of ... involving 23 participants over the course of five years. They found that there is a correlation between x and y.
Green et al conducted detailed surveys of ... and they found no correlation between x and y.
Another study by White et al...

These summaries may be perfectly accurate, but oh so mind-numbingly boring to read. A did this. B did this. C did this.

Instead of just presenting a series of individual summaries, try something like this;

One explanation for this effect was given by Pink, who proposed a causal relationship between x and y [ref]. While this has been accepted by many [refs], to date few empirical studies have attempted to test this relationship and those that have been conducted have produced contradictory results.
For example, Brown et al...

Here, the first sentence introduces some new information (obviously following on from a previous paragraph), while the second sentence states a problem or open question that provides a context for the literature summaries that follow. The reader has a reason to be interested in Brown's study when it's framed in this way.

It's not just about what they did or said, but what they were trying to solve and how that fits in with the broader context. The way to convey this is to focus first on the problems the literature is trying to solve.

The other key element is to provide some kind of insight or observation about the literature, for example;

  • "the few studies that have been conducted have produced contradictory results"
  • "this has been of increasing interest over the last five years"
  • "since the discovery of ..., there has been a concerted research effort to ..."
  • "this was a longstanding problem in the field until..."
  • "... has been the subject of fierce debate"

This has to come from an understanding of the context. You cannot do this by typing up summaries of individual papers as you read them and then trying to edit them together.

The types of references

Not all references need detailed summaries, and the level of detail should vary depending on your reasons for citing the paper and what you have to say about it.

Some references are just used as examples of a particular approach or idea, for example,

"a number of different approaches to this problem have been taken, including A [1-3], B [4,5], C [6-9]."

In this example no detail at all is given, but the references are essentially saying to the reader, "if you want good examples of these things, go here", literally referring the reader to the source.

In other cases, you might use a reference to back up something you take as fact. "Because A is known to be caused by B [10], we can assume that..." Again, in this example, no detail is given, but the reader can check where the premise comes from. Obviously, you need to be really confident that your source says what you say it says (never cite anything you haven't read).

Then there will be more detailed discussions where you name the author in the text, taking and discussing a key point from a specific paper. "According to Blue et al..., if true, this would imply that..."And finally, there will be papers you describe in greater detail, but you should only do this where you feel it's important to do so.

If you like this post...

Take the course on literature and literature reviews. You can find it here.

See also

How to Write a PhD Literature Review

How much literature is enough?

By Diliff - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
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