Writing a scientific literature review

Researcher to researcher tips

How do you approach writing a scientific literature review? What do you need to consider before you start writing?

Who better to advise than Syed Ghazi Sarwat, winner of the Materials Science & Technology Literature Review Prize for his article ‘Materials science and engineering of phase change random access memory’ in Materials Science and Technology. Taylor & Francis offers hundreds of prizes for researchers, collaborating with journals, institutions, and societies to provide support and recognition.

Read on for Ghazi’s researcher to researcher tips.

From Syed Ghazi Sarwat, University of Oxford

Take the reader on a journey

In my experience, the key to a good literature review is its ability to tell a story. It must introduce a main topic, and then take the reader on a journey, coherently describing the concept from rudiments all the way up to sophisticated advances. A review article might be considered as lecture notes compiled into one big file – but at the same time, the author must never take the reader for granted and needs to start with the basics, gradually unravelling the intricacies.

Write an article that would have been useful for you when you first encountered the topic

Before starting any piece of scientific writing, I carry-out thorough introspection. I consider the difficulties and knowledge gaps I faced when I was first introduced to the topic. I then think of myself as the reader and write in a way that meets the curiosity I had.

Write with confidence

Writing a literature review, you become an ambassador for the subject, an author owning the story. You no longer summarize the literature, but instead provide reasoning like an expert in the subject, and this is crucial.

Connect with other authors

I take interest in connecting with the authors of the papers I find interesting. I begin to follow their research and scrutinize their choice of projects. This makes learning and writing more interesting, but also helps me think about new ideas and scientific explanations.

5 top tips

  1. Keep the language simple. Assume that your audience are not experts in the field.
  2. Use referencing software – you are never going to get the article exactly right on first draft. To make life easier, invest time to learn this skill.
  3. Get the outline of the review right – your review will likely require multiple iterations, and a strong outline can make things easier further down the line.
  4. Always try to include the highest quality version of the images, and always invest time drawing the schematics as best you can (I always go back to the Figures I liked in the literature before I start making my versions).
  5. Lastly, take the opportunity of writing a literature review seriously. This is not just an opportunity for you to get an article published, but also to get started with your research. Developing a good understanding of the field you will be working on, beforehand, expedites your progress immensely.

Ghazi is pursuing his PhD at the University of Oxford (Felix Scholar at the Department of Materials), specializing in the field of nano-engineering. He is developing frameworks for novel electronics and opto-electronics devices, particularly focused towards brain inspired computing and artificial retinas. Before Oxford, Ghazi majored in Metallurgical Engineering, with focus on non-equilibrium alloys (Bulk Metallic Glasses, and High Entropy alloys). He has received several reputed accolades and is a sincere believer in being active in communicating his research through conferences and social media. Follow is research here