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’. Taylor & Francis offers hundreds of prizes for researchers, collaborating with journals, institutions, and societies to provide support and recognition. 

Read on to see Ghazi’s top researcher to researcher tips. 

Syed Ghazi Sarwat talks about writing a scientific literature review

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. 

Vector illustration of a character in grey, sat crossed legged, on an open laptop with a WiFi symbol above it.

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. 

Where to next?

If you’ve found these tips helpful make sure you look at:

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