Tips for writing a literature review

In this post, winner of the ‘Materials Science & Technology Literature Review Prize’ in Materials Science and Technology shares tips for writing a literature review.

From Diptak Bhattacharya, researcher

Winner of the IOM3 competition

Writing a literature review paper offers a unique opportunity to critically analyze and organize current literature. If you’re a graduate student, this will help you understand your field before you start writing your own research.

Here are some suggestions for how to turn this journey into a grand adventure.

Simplify the literature – present the broad picture to the reader

There is a vast array of scientific literature available and it sometimes feels overwhelming to study it systematically. As an author of a review paper, present the literature in an organized way so that your review acts as a handy ‘guidebook’ of the literature. Developing schematic maps and classifications can help the reader visualize the chronology of developments in a field, and also locate particular papers of interest.

Develop an interesting storyline to engage the reader

A review paper should have a strong plot. Introduce the topic using an interesting problem statement that plants a seed of suspense in the reader’s mind. Then, take the reader on a journey that slowly unfolds the origin of the stated problem. Always explain the theory right from the basics. Illustrate concepts through graphics alongside text. Schematic charts and diagrams help demonstrate theories that are complicated to interpret from texts alone, therefore you can use them to keep the reader engaged and help them grasp the theory.

Critically analyze the literature

As a scientific person, it is imperative to assimilate data from different research, and understand its broader implications. Often, you discover hidden scientific trails only through comparing and contrasting research. These trends are not obvious from any stand-alone investigation. An effective literature review paper identifies and interprets these subtle trends and builds ideas and hypotheses for future research in the field.

Be confident to highlight gaps in the literature

A literature review is not merely an exercise to summarize published research, because every research is different and the findings and interpretations may vary. Rather, a review paper is an excellent place to identify the gaps or inconsistencies in the literature. Therefore, you should aim to write a review that leaves a clear impression of what is ‘well understood’, and what still remains a ‘mystery’ to be solved.

Want more tips on writing a scientific literature review? Read posts from last year’s winner Syed Ghazi Sarwat, and runner-up Angus Crake.

Plus, view our handy infographic.

Writing a literature review infographic

Diptak Bhattacharya is currently undertaking his PhD at the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center in Colorado School of Mines, USA. His PhD research focuses on developing appropriate joining strategies for successfully implementing 3rd Gen. advanced steels in lightweight automotive manufacturing. Before his PhD, Diptak worked as a product technologist in the Flat Product Technology Group of Tata Steel Limited, India. He is a core metallurgist, and hopes to actively contribute to industries through his research. Follow his research here.