How NOT to do a literature review

How NOT to do a literature review

If you’re doing a PGR degree, odds are that an in-depth literature review is one of the first large bits of writing that you will have to do. And it doesn’t get much better. There’s gonna be progress reports, hopefully some papers and conference abstracts, and the much dreaded thesis. Luckily, if you write a very good literature review at the beginning of your degree, your life will be much much easier in the future. You can use the references from it, and sometimes entire paragraphs if you’re happy with them, in future reports and in your thesis.

Everyone’s writing style is different, and how you approach a literature review will vary on that and largely on what your research is about. Your supervisor will likely advise you on good books you can start with, for example. And when you’re in the middle of trying to find papers, it’s good to remember that @UofGLibrary have a lot of books, papers and archived theses. If you don’t know where to start or where to find things, there’s a very helpful team of college librarians who are always more than happy to help you with college specific inquiries.

With that in mind, there are a few things that regardless of what college you’re doing your research in, or what stage you’re at with your studies, you should probably avoid doing when writing your literature review.

Not reading any review papers

I love starting my literature searches with a review paper. They are aiming for the same outcome as I am (critically review the literature and identify gaps in the knowledge), so they usually have a similar structure to what I have in mind, which makes planning my review a lot easier. They’ll cover a few of the topics I need to as well, so their references can be an excellent jumping point to further reading.

Summarise and include every single article you come across

You’ll need to talk about the methods and results from a few relevant papers, and discuss their findings and how they tie in with your work. However, you definitely don’t need to summarise or even mention every single paper you read, especially if the only relevant thing in it is a quick mention of a technique you’re considering using, but applied to an entirely different system.

Get lost in the literature

Similar to the point above, don’t spend all your time browsing through papers that you might not even get a chance to read properly. Does the abstract look relevant to you? If yes, great, read the paper! If not, move on or save it in your reference manager library and give it another quick read when you have the time. It’s easy to start off with a relevant paper and then get lost in a maze of suggested articles covering completely different topics, which will then lead to more suggestions of irrelevant but at the time incredibly interesting looking papers.

 Maze of books to get lost into, and all of them sharing an office with me... (Photo: Bianca Sala)

Maze of books to get lost into, and all of them sharing an office with me... (Photo: Bianca Sala)

Not asking for help when you need it

Unsure on where to start, or how to quickly find the papers you need in databases? Need a textbook that’s not available online? Ask your college librarian! They’re there to help you with these sort of things, and they’d be more than happy to hear from you!

Similarly, if you’re stuck on coming up with a structure you’re happy with, or are worried about anything from grammar to good punctuation, consider making an appointment with Jennifer Boyle at LEADS, or attending some of her writing courses. Of course, you should also ask your supervisor for help when you’re stuck. They know what the School and College expectations are, and are able to advise you on the best places to start with your literature search.

 UofG has plenty resources to help you with writing, from dedicated courses to writing boot camps and a helpful team of librarians. (Photo: Bianca Sala)

UofG has plenty resources to help you with writing, from dedicated courses to writing boot camps and a helpful team of librarians. (Photo: Bianca Sala)

Not identifying the gaps in knowledge, and where your research fits in

Summarising the theory behind your research, explaining why it’s relevant and mentioning what’s been done before are all things that you need to do in your literature review. But you also need to talk about why YOUR research topic is relevant. What are the gaps in the research? Which of these gaps are you trying to fill? How are you planning on doing that?

Trying to make it perfect before sending it to your supervisor

By all means check the spelling and grammar before sending your first draft to your supervisor, but don’t worry about making it perfect. It won’t be. Odds are you’re going to get your review (or report, or paper draft) back with lots and lots of corrections and suggestions, and delaying sending it just means your supervisors will have less time to give you feedback, and you’ll have less time to make the changes they recommend.

Not using a reference manager

Reference managers are great. Why download and save tons and tons of papers and book chapters in random folders on your office PC or laptop, or carrying them about on USB sticks when you could use a reference managing software that would sync on all your devices, as well as automatically organise your reference list? No need to pay for one either, as a free one is excellent as well. If you’re unsure about what reference manager to use, check out our post on useful apps and software for PGR students, where we talk about some of the available ones!

Not have any references

You’d think nobody would ever do this, but I did. Okay, I didn’t talk about papers with no intention on properly referencing them. I had them saved in my Mendeley library, but for some reason didn’t reference as I went along, intending to just referencing the whole thing at the end. Of course when I sent the draft to my supervisor for review, I forgot about putting the references in… Don’t do that. Reference as you go along. Trust me, adding them after my report was written took a lot longer than it should’ve.

Not doing anything else other than writing

Sometimes dedicating a full day to writing is exactly what’s needed. However, most of the time there’s other stuff that you need to do, such as collecting and analysing data, or demonstrating undergraduate labs. Manage your time effectively, and dedicate a few hour blocks to writing. If you’re struggling to put words to paper (or Word document), take a short break to go for a coffee, or do something else on your list. You can check out Victoria’s post for more tips about how to combat  writer’s block. If you feel like you need to schedule writing time away from your office, consider attending one of the writing boot camps organised by Jennifer Boyle - keep an eye on emails about when the next boot camp is!

Do you have any literature reviews you need to do? What are your strategies for approaching one, and have you made any mistakes? Leave us a comment below or tweet us at @UofG_PGRBlog.

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