Thesis Literature Review

How to write a literature review for a research thesis, research dissertation, or scientific journal article.
Or let the literature review write itself!

You've decided to do an honors year? Or commence a PhD? Or you need to write a scientific journal article? You need to write a literature review as part of your research thesis, research dissertation, or for the article you are composing for peer reviewed publication in a scientific journal.

The only problem is, you’re an aspiring scientist, not a writer! If you had wanted to write you would have done an arts degree, not a science degree.

Thesis Literature ReviewThe first part of any scientific thesis, dissertation, or journal article is a literature review. Yes, I know its usually called the introduction. But that’s all the introduction really is – a review of everything anyone has ever written relevant to your topic, as well as a short statement as to what your aims are. This article will tell you how to write a great literature review to get your thesis or paper off to a flying start, and leave you free to do the fun bit – the experiments. Mind you, I find this method of writing literature reviews to be a lot of fun as well because it is methodical and logical – perfect for an aspiring scientist. I worked out this method when I was writing my own thesis, and have also applied it to writing introductions for peer reviewed journal articles. It will also work for a straight literature review article no matter how big or small since the principles are the same. The beauty of this method is that literature reviews for most scientific research theses, dissertations, and journal articles, write themselves!

So on with the show.

1. Gather all your papers and articles.
  • If you have been given a reading list, stick to it.
  • If your supervisor refers you to any articles, get copies.
  • If you are doing original research define your topic very specifically and search out everything you can find relevant to that topic, regardless of whether

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    you agree with it.

2. Read each paper and either write a one sentence summary of the main points or highlight a single quote from the paper.
  • Try not to write more than this - scientific papers are only supposed to answer one question.

3. Type out each summary or quote along with its citation, for example 'Smith & Jones found that cats have hair' (Smith & Jones, 2005) or “Cats have hair.” (Smith & Jones, 2005).
  • As you summarize each paper write out the reference in full, thereby creating a References List.
  • Alternatively enter details of each paper into a reference management program, for example Endnote.

Now comes the fun part:

4. Group all of your summaries and quotes according to their different topics or subjects – these will become your paragraphs.

  • You may have a single citation for one topic, and many citations for another topic – that’s okay at this stage, keep them all.

5. Rearrange your ‘paragraphs’ into a logical order.

You have to do a little bit of thinking at this point:

6. Outline your introduction and conclusion based on the arrangement of your ‘paragraphs’.

7. Tidy up each ‘paragraph’.

  • Make a clear statement or create a logical argument to tie your summaries and quotes together.
  • You should still have every citation you started with.
  • Use correct English.

Your document is almost finished.

8. Read through the almost completed document.
  • Add new citations if required (you may need to beef out an argument you have made in one of your paragraphs).
  • Delete citations or quotes if required (sometimes ten people have reported a similar finding - you have kept all your citations in the document so far, now you cut down those ten to the most relevant ones).

9. Tidy up your introduction and conclusion and make sure your review/argument is logical.

10. Don’t forget to tidy up your reference list.

  • Make sure there is a reference for every citation.
  • Don’t include a reference that isn’t cited.

There you go, your literature review is written.

Category: Dissertation

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